The Cup of Nations is nearly upon us. Three games means there’s plenty to talk about – so let’s talk.
Cuppa One: Approaching tournament football
Three games, one week – it’s beginning to look a lot like preparations for the World Cup are upon us. The mini-tournament occurring on Aussie soil makes it all the more sweeter.
Up against two European countries – Spain and Czech Republic – is an opportunity to truly cast away any lingering doubts the Matildas can’t match it against nations from the continent. The wheels have been turning after wins against Sweden and Denmark to end 2022. Now is the time to build confidence before it really matters.
Then throw in Jamaica, and we’re in for a world of excitement and joy.
The extra third game thrown into the international break will be the lactic acid test, where travel for the European-based Matildas will also be a factor. A type of test that those behind the scenes will be hoping to build the foundations for July.
Tournament football is a lot like making a fancy, tiered, decorated cake. All the elements are essential, some roughness can be covered up, but ultimately you need solid results across the layers, and games, to be part of something beautiful.
The Czech Republic will be the first test in Gosford on a Thursday night.
Despite falling short of World Cup qualification, the ability for Czech to turn it on shouldn’t be underestimated. They’ve denied the World Champions USA and European Champions England victories in friendlies over the past 12 months.
A team that has been the thorn in the side of the world’s best will require the Matildas arrive ready to hit the ground running.
With Caitlin Foord firing goals for fun, and midfield options coming out of Tony Gustavsson’s ears, the opener will hopefully set the tone of a smashing week of football.
Cuppa Two: Matildas to heal wounds against Spain
A lot has changed since a seven goal thrashing against Spain last June. At the time, a backline with Nevin, Grant and Vine seemed underwhelming. Now? They’ve become staples.
Vine has picked up the speed required at international football and has proved flexible on the flank. Should she play wing back regularly against a talented European side who loves to hold the ball? The simple answer is no. But could she handle the situation if required? I have no doubt with the extra handful of caps she now has under her belt.
Next comes Grant, a player who is almost undroppable despite her youth. Most often deputising for the injured Ellie Carpenter at right back, the South Australian can seamlessly transition between the right and left.
It’s not just her flexibility in a position the Matildas have often lacked depth, it’s what she brings in defence and attack. Speed to kill injects pace in an often slow defence line up, and hasn’t really skipped a beat defensively. Most importantly it’s the different option she offers with the ball. Grant can stride forward with the ball, make a cutting pass and mixes things up by looking to cut in bucking the Aussie fullback tradition of going wide and hitting the line.
Then there’s Nevin whose confidence continues to grow, including sealing a deal with Leister. Consistency in the green and gold is perhaps the next feather Nevin needs to add to her hat, however when she’s on, she is a welcome injection into the backline. Whilst most often deployed at fullback, again providing depth in the often troubled position, Nevin could arguably become another centre back option once she gains more experience.
Spain will enter the game in a different position than eight months ago. Instead of polishing off a squad primed for the Euros, they’ve been faced with controversy with many of the best players not being selected – as the federation and players stand-off appears to have no end.
Meanwhile the “fringe” Matildas arrive with a bucket load of experience, including the baptism of fire against Spain. Throw in the availability of the European/English-based players and the Cup of Nations game is going to be a whole other ball game.
Cuppa Three: Last round Sam Kerr cast a spell against Jamaica
Cast your mind back to 2019, game three in France. The Matildas needed a win or it was very likely the end of the road – despite the miracle of Montpillier. And the game the Matildas needed a convincing display in was against none other than the Bunny Shaw-led Jamaica.
When the cake needed baking, who else should step up than top chef Sam Kerr. Opening the scoring in the 11th minute, finishing only in the 83rd. Kerr scored four goals, result 4-1, job done.
The importance of Kerr’s four goal spell mustn’t be undermined, but more importantly – the game plan has well and truly changed since 2019.
A game plan of moving the ball to the flanks and finding an isolated Kerr with her iconic leap in the middle was enforced in full effect in France. Gratefully, the Matildas now have more creative options available, Kerr is less isolated and freightfully, Kerr is even more dangerous for it.
The tactics of 2019 smelled of desperation of a late coach change who wasn’t well acquainted with his personnel to truly rely on other means to score when trouble stoked. We’ve now entered a new era with a coach who has pulled apart and built the squad up – matching pieces with different ideas and philosophies.
The Matildas are a team who have shown no fear of failure. Early thrashings under Tony Gustavsson didn’t stop a historic run in the Olympics. Continued troubles against European giants was flipped with a thrashing of the fancied Sweden.
A long ball, crosses and Kerr headers is still an option, but it’s not the only one. There’s the creative link Mary Fowler offers, Caitlin Foord drifting inward as another false 10 to support Kerr and Charlotte Grant cutting in to create a more direct passage of play. Options have popped up across the pitch – all part of a larger master plan; the ability to score more goals.
To wrap up the Cup of Nations against Jamaica provides an opportunity to remember a golden moment of our past and to savour where we’re going.