Heading into this game I knew this was going to be tough. What last group game isn’t? Add on the stakes of a World Cup place and an Asian Cup semi final for both sides, there was no chance this game would be emotionless. That’s why I prepared myself. Preparation is key, not just for the players, but for us fans too. I had my Matildas beanie, a good, solid pre-game nap and a packet of Oreos. Set. But honestly very little can truly be done to prepare for Japan v Australia.
Lucky for us, the earlier kick off is easier to wake up to. Tonight, thanks to the kick off time, there was actually a chance to check out the team sheets prior to the match, rather than do a last ditch Twitter search to figure out who the heck is playing fullback, or discover which that blonde is playing in the middle of the park. No huge “Stajic” moves for this starting lineup, for once, with no Elise Kellond-Knight playing probably the most obvious unexpected change. Her pinpoint kicks from the old dead balls were missed.
Game started, I’m actually pretty awake, gee was it good. The first half, we dominated. There were opportunities created, Sam Kerr’s runs were proving a handful for the Japanese defence, Katrina Gorry was ALL OVER the park, we had the upper hand clear and simple. One key difference to our performance going forward was our fullbacks. Whenever Ellie Carpenter and Steph Catley got running down the flanks, with overlapping runs, or simply running the ball from deep into the attacking third, we looked deadly. Attacking full backs was something we didn’t see enough of against South Korea, one reason we failed to break that side down. But today, they were on point. Especially Ellie Carpenter, the first half being the best one I’ve seen from her since she kept Megan Rapinoe quiet when we beat the USA in the Tournament of Nations last year.
I imagine the talk during the tunnel between the two sides prior to the match went a bit like this:
Matildas: “How many chances can we get today?”
Japan:”Are you going to score?”
Matildas: “Probs not”
Japan: “As many as you like then”
We had chances. More than what I thought we would have against Japan. Japan also seemed to want to just hand us opportunities with the amount of turnovers they gave up in their defensive third.
But a bit like how I had to take my opportunities when I was younger and taller than my brothers to brag about actually being taller than my brothers, you need to take your opportunities when they happen. Much like my barely 158cm height was never going to be enough to be taller than my brothers (I may have even rounded up by half a cm, don’t judge me), we were never going to dominate a full 90 minutes of play against Japan. Both are simply just impossible scenarios, even when one said brother is a short arse, he will still be taller than me (sorry Jack). Chances came and we just flaming well didn’t take them. Everything to the lead up to the chance was gold, like our jerseys. But our shooting simply looked rushed, honestly a bit rubbish and clearly not good enough to actually capitalise on our good play to get the chance.
Halftime arrived, I didn’t really want it. We were playing well. Apart from some back passes between Lydia Williams and Alana Kennedy, which gave me nightmare flashbacks to City v Jets W-League game where a miscontrolled back pass between the duo lead to a Jet’s goal, we had the upper hand. However, no one wants to go in at half time having dominated play against Japan but with nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.
Enter the second half. For the five minutes or so you could be fooled into thinking it was a game of who can go to ground the fastest. So many players hit the deck. The challenges were flying. But honestly for this half my frustration levels went from from my mum not understanding what I’m talking about, whilst in reality we’re both saying the same thing, to having to organise my brothers for just about every family event levels. The changing room had done it’s magic for Japan, and it was clear Japan came out to play. A different side came out to what went in at half time. Que the moment you realise we squandered the chance to put the game to bed in the first half by taking our chances. To que the titanic music would be appropriate.
Japan are a side who only need one chance. They proved this true once again. Having already demonstrated their stunning combination play, and talent, Yui Hasegawa and Mana Iwabuchi early in the game, they were the spark Japan needed to wrestle this game in their favour. On the 62nd minute, fate had it’s way. Japan scored. After some neat passes by the aforementioned duo completely wiped out our midfield, a ball by Iwabuchi (I’m pretty certain that’s who it was, hard figuring out who is who on an ipad mini) in behind our fullback created space for Hasegawa to pull the ball back for Mizuho Sakaguchi, who had plenty of time and space to bang the ball into the back of the net.
Japan are a goal ahead. We’re a goal down. An 8-0 win against Vietnam matters none, if we don’t pull out something we are going to have to play for our lives to book a place to France 2019, plus face the disappointment of not challenging for the Asian Cup title. I was bemoaning this cruel twist of fate. All we needed was a goal, but unlike the first half where I thought it was only a matter of time, I just couldn’t see it. Even after Kyah Simon got on the field, a move I had been hoping for since the half time break, I still just couldn’t see it. Japan were now contesting for the ball, and we just didn’t look hungry enough for large spells this second half. Our backline too looked shaky at times, and if it weren’t for the consistent hard work of Alana Kennedy, I’m unconvinced about how we play defensively against quality opponents.
We get to the last ten minutes of the game. Throw your kitchen sink at the goals kinda time. Somehow we found something extra for these dying minutes. Even so, I’ve seen this before, and I’m no fool, without a goal I was going to remain in a state of sulking.
Then came the 86th minute. This minute had all I, and every other Matildas’ fan was hoping for. Our time to shine. Well not really shine, but WE GOT THE GOAL!! The end result was scrappy, with the final shot purely a result of Kerr’s unrelentless work effort up front, but we got the goal! Celebrations, wake up your neighbors at quarter to one in the morning, the happiest of times. To get to the goal, Carpenter had decided to wake up again after falling asleep a bit the second half, made a dashing run, creating space and movement up front. Then Simon got on the ball and did what she does best, shoot. The shot bobbled around and like only Kerr can do at times, Kerr somehow managed to win the ball at her feet and put it into the back of the net.
No one is going home today. Both teams are happy. A one all draw works for both of them. The goal seemed to bring into play some sort of unspoken, but implied agreement. I imagine the agreement went a bit like, “You happy?” “I’m happy” “Let’s just play keepies off until the final whistle?” “Yup, deal”. With both teams happy, the goal booking both sides a plane ticket to a World Cup in France, and five minutes of play left, we got to finish the game in the most ironic way. After a game of numerous defensive turnovers, and direct play by both teams, Japan literally passed the ball around their back four for the remaining minutes of play.
The game ends, one all. Japan had showed up that second half. But ultimately both teams get a result that sees them through to play on in the semi finals, keeping hopes alive of a trophy to add to the cabinet. Do we deserve to make it through? Yes. But do we need to start taking our chances? Heck yes. Even if it’s just for the sanity and stress levels of us fans. I’ve got uni mid semesters next week, I won’t be able to handle them plus another game of missed chances like today. Despite the result and stress though, the way we played against Japan shows how we have improved. We demanded respect from the former World Champions and were able to play to our game plan, not theirs, even if we should have buried more of those chances. So a good day in the office at the end.
Round 3 Results
China 8 – 1 Jordan
Thailand 3 – 1 Philippines
Japan 1 – 1 Australia
South Korea 4 – 0 Vietnam