Japan v Australia.
Heading into the match I was hopeful. Partly because I was eyeing off a new phone background of the Matildas holding up that pretty Asian Cup, partly because a final always brings an element of hope. We had played average yes, but making it to the final of a competition with eight teams, where at least five could win the Cup on their day (and the other three not far behind), is an achievement no matter how ugly it is to get there. A bit like finishing a uni degree. No one cares about the individual results, you just have to get to the finish line for the final reward.
Finals football though. Why do it? As an Australian we demand finals footy, we have a month more or less dedicated to it. But the kind of pain inflicted from them is heavy. Further, finals footy hasn’t treated me well this year. First Sydney FC lost out to Melbourne City in the final (again..), and now the Matildas and this illusive Asian Cup. (Sure we’ve won it once, but now four final appearances and only one Cup to show for, it’s illusive in my books). This game was the epitome of finals football too. Even Alan Stajic treated it that way, before the kick off deciding on a starting eleven that looks to be our best team on paper, and they played that way too. But it just wasn’t meant to be. New background photo needed be damned!
Some games are upsetting to lose, this is one. Not upsetting in the way we lost, because this was probably the best performance we’ve had since the Brazil game in Penrith (big call, but I stand by this). We found our intensity and urgency on the ball that makes us play the brand of football we pride ourselves on as a nation. The upset stems from a performance deserving better, but knowing an inability to actually put away chances, with Japanese goalkeeper, Ayaka Yamashita, being the best on the field and being up against a team that puts away it’s one chance of the second half, a delightfully, thundering strike by Kumi Yokoyama, makes the upset still an upset. Albeit an upset that feels partly inevitable.
So here’s what you need to know about the final.
We actually played with urgency. I know amazing! Honestly I didn’t think we would see it this side of Christmas. From the first whistle, we looked interested in playing again. If that means we had to go through the horror of tying against Thailand, may that game live long in the memory of all. Such a joy to watch a team who look interested and ready to play, and that was the Matildas in the final. Part of our urgency meant our combinations today were good. We were moving. An important part of this is having Steph Catley back at left back. Having Catley down the left flank, means we can once again use it as a reliable source of creativity for attack, plus she brings the defensive balance with the position being one she has honed over the years.
Not only did we find our urgency, our midfield got involved! Lately I’ve been lamenting the fact our midfield just hasn’t been involved in matches or dictated play the way it ought to with the quality we have. But today my friends was different. All three midfielders pulled a massive shift today. For me, starting Tameka Butt today was better than a week of having pasta for dinner and ice cream for dessert. Butt brought fresh legs, fresh ideas and that urgency to see something happen by breaking between the lines of midfield and attack. Meanwhile Emily Van Egmond and Elise Kellond-Knight reverted to their more natural positions, of attacking and defensive midfield respectively, and thrived! Yes we probably need to fit in Katrina Gorry somehow, but this was the best midfield performance in a long time. They dictated play against a very good Japanese side. So props. Our midfield has finally been found after their extended holiday.
Possession, we’re getting good at that. I remember first watching the Matildas and most games we would be lucky to have near half of the possession. I’m pretty certain we had games against Germany and Brazil in previous World Cups where we would have been lucky to have had 30% of the ball. Today though we were up against a side who traditional pride themselves on holding the ball, but still managed to have the bulk of possession. Sure you need goals to win matches and not possession, but to have that much of the ball, whilst constantly searching for a way to break down an organised Japanese side, is a good thing and definitely a take home.
Japan only need one chance to score. Ok, so this isn’t bad as in “bad bad”, but it was unfortunate for today. They had a couple chances in the first half, but were limited to very few clear cut opportunities in the second. However it only took one ball in, for one player to find that bit of creativity and technical skill to completely wipe out both our centre backs and the resulting strike in the back of the net. Bad as a Matildas fan, beautiful for lovers of quality goals.
Missed chances, and boy did we have a few. Dominating play and creating chances is always, always a good thing. However not putting any of those chances into the back of the net isn’t. Unlike Japan, a team where everyone agrees they only need one chance, we’re becoming a side that needs twenty. Sure we are good off corners, but they were as often today as my tomato hating brother eats tomatoes (few and far between). To have the chances we did, with the final product just not good enough, is just that, just not good enough. The first half brought two saves from Yamashita where I was like “woah, good save, magic”. Other than that though, we kept wasting chances by crossing the ball too close to the keeper, or with poor execution for the final ball. It hurts to have the better of the play but to not have the chances to point to and say “there, should have scored there”.
Right back. Probably all I need to write here. Look I love Ellie Carpenter’s ability to attack, but the liability she causes in the back weighs heavier. We need other options there. Put Carpenter on when you’re looking for that bit extra in the second half, or when the stakes aren’t high if we concede a goal or two. We need a right back who can consistently defend. Carpenter demonstrated against the USA last year she can, but since has been AWOL on her defensive responsibilities for the Matildas. It’s time to do something different. Let’s give Larissa Crummer or Caitlin Cooper a go please. At the very least it will give us another option, at best we will have a better option there than we currently do.
The Talking Point
Penalties are a funny game. Through penalties we were handed a place in the final. Another penalty could also have been our saving grace today, after an early penalty going our way. The penalty gods were not with us today though, with Kellond-Knight missing from the spot. People will lament this opportunity, and point to this early play as the reason we lost this game. It wasn’t. I’m not saying whether the decision over the penalty taker was the right decision, nor that the penalty was any good. But a game shouldn’t be decided on whether a penalty is scored or missed, especially not even fifteen minutes into the game. We had other chances. Missing a penalty was not the reason we couldn’t score. Not being able to score is a whole different issue. Kellond-Knight stood up for the rest of the match and played out of her skin protecting the backline from those second balls Japan constantly searched for and won last time we played them. So please, no hate on the player.
Caitlin Foord. I’ve been loving her commentary, but let’s be real here, we need her on the field. Foord brings another dimension to our attack. During a tournament when our attack looked very one dimensional, over relying on Sam Kerr to pull out some magic, or a goal off a set piece, Foord would have brought a different type of creativity sorely missed at times. Would she have made the difference for the final? Can’t say for certain, Yamashita was having the game of her life. But the added “plan B” Foord brings to our attack has been missing since she’s been out.
In The End
All in all, we’ve once again we are the bridesmaid and not the bride to Asia. We’ll have that crown again one day. This tournament has brought an element of reality to the side. We need to improve on elements of the game, but we are still competing with some of the best nations in the world, and being treated with the respect of being a good footballing side, no longer having the underdog tag. Hope for a good World Cup tournament next year is still alive.
Just one more point before signing off these Sleepy Footy Observations for another season, people ask whether Europe has overtaken Asia because of the Matildas inability to get results here. That’s not the case guys. Asia and Europe are both equally hard confederations. Both confederations have teams capable of winning the World Cup, as well as those “minnows”. One take home from this years Asian Cup and last year’s Euros, those “minnows” are getting better and are challenging the traditionally tagged big boys (or girls, but boys just has that double ‘b’ things so bare with me). Next year’s World Cup is gonna be a thriller. Probably should start preparing for it now honestly guys.
Japan 1 – 0 Australia