Matildas finally find the key

Australia 3 Chinese Taipei 0

An attacking starting line-up boasting a wealth of experience signalled the intent of the Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson in what most observers expected to be a formality against Chinese Taipei. With Cortnee Vine dispatched back to Sydney with a hamstring injury and Emily Van Egmond and Ellie Carpenter given early leave to rejoin their respective clubs, the substitutes bench had a threadbare look, yet frustratingly there was still no starting berth for fan favourites Charli Grant and Alex Chidiac. A hot day in Perth gave way to a beautiful spring evening, the Philippines and Iran having done battle in the hottest part of the day in the early kick-off of the double-header. The crowd slowly filled the green seats of HBF Park, the safe standing of the Shed at the Northern End of this compact stadium the first area to get vocal. The dropping of the sun immediately gave this a big-game feel and there was a sense of anticipation as the camera scanned the young crowd for signs. The announcement of the players drew a huge roar for Mackenzie Arnold and Sam Kerr, and the ferver continued through the substitutes and even on to the coach.

Chines Taipei changed the teams around, Australia shooting towards the Shed in the first half, Arnold receiving a raucous welcome at the Southern End ahead of kick off. The opening moments allowed the crowd to marvel at the attacking formation, Sam Kerr almost twisting her way through in the first minute. The passing, in truth, was a little sloppy, memories of the precision play that carved the Philippines apart on Sunday fading fast. Having said that, it was clear who the favourites tonight. Clare Wheeler had the game by the scruff of the neck, and Caitlin Foord stung the palms of the Chinese Taipei goalkeeper Cheng Ssu-Yu. A sliced clearance of Andrew Redmayne proportions then presented Steph Catley with a corner and Alanna Kennedy’s free header should have been on target. Mary Fowler caught a clearance on the half volley that struck the inside of the post to raise the tempo, and it was all Australia. Hayley Raso scuffed a shot when well-placed, surely it was a matter of time.

The frustrated figure of Tony Gustavsson spun in dismay as his team almost ran out of ideas, and when Mary Fowler blazed over from a clever corner routine he would have been exasperated. Kerr chose to pass when she turned smartly on the edge of the area, and Kyra Cooney-Cross smashed another shot way over the bar. Boos rang out as the referee refused to award another corner, but the way Chinese Taipei were playing out from the back, a goal kick was almost as fruitful. Foord brought a good save from Ssu-Yu. Katrina Gorry maybe should have done better, miskicking a shot into the goalkeeper’s grateful arms, and it was clear that the ball into feet for the strikers to lay off would be the key to unlocking the stubborn defence of the visitors.

Kerr had a clear penalty shout when she was unceremoniously pushed off the ball from another Cooney-Cross corner from the left, but the referee was on the spot and unmoved. Another shot from Fowler brought screams for a handball but it was from point-blank range and off the body. Gustavsson looked on hopefully. Australia couldn’t get through the wall of white shirts, the classic ploy of holding firm and sending only one player out to challenge for the ball was working. Kerr headed over when Raso finally beat her player down the right, and all Chinese Taipei could do was hack the ball away into touch, with little attacking intent of their own. Half time was greeted with generous applause. Australia had been dominant, but the scores remained somehow locked at 0-0.

The smiling face of Charli Grant was introduced as the second half got underway, Lydia Williams replacing the under-employed Mackenzie Arnold, and the Matildas appeared to slim down their defence to two as they went for the jugular. Kerr mis-controlled at the wrong time when played clean through, Fowler teased her way down the left but looked non-plussed with the lack of movement in the box and her cross was hopeful rather than purposeful. Foord teased in a cross from the right that Kerr headed wide. This was agony for the watching fans as the home team stroked the ball around looking for the way through. Gorry fizzed in a shot, but by now the Matildas were looking for the high-percentage ball and reluctant to swing the ball in without a clear target.

Raso’s attempted volley just before the hour mark typified the Matildas’ luck, but they almost found the way through when Foord danced through to fire straight at Ssu-Yu. Chinese Taipei shuffled the pack but maintained the tight midfield block. Just as Amy Sayer was about to take the field, Fowler cut in from the left and unleashed an unstoppable shot from the edge of the area to give the Matildas the breakthrough they craved. It was as good if not better than Wheeler’s strike on the weekend, and as Chinese Taipei tried to respond, they were caught out in midfield and Australia should have added a second, the offside flag stopping Fowler in her tracks as she raced on to Raso’s ball. That was Raso’s final contribution as Sayer appeared, Gustavsson determined to be proven right about her talent and potential.

It was 2-0 soon after. Foord teased her defender to the by-line and drilled in a cross. The ball hit a defender at pace and looked straightforward for the goalkeeper to gather, but the ball bounced kindly for Kerr, who ghosted in like the world-class striker she is to poke home from a yard out. That was her final moment as Tameka Yallop replaced her. Steph Catley smashed in a shot that was deflected wide, Foord again cut inside and was unfortunate to see her shot pushed wide. Gorry and Yallop stole the ball in midfield, the pint-sized Gorry sizing up the shot that was brilliantly tipped over. The broad shoulders of Cooney-Cross took control in midfield, the mood had changed completely, the goals were flowing. When Foord did everything in her power to bundle the ball in from the left, the ball fell for Sayer on the right, but the angle was too acute and she fed Yallop who made no mistake to add the third. HBF Park was rocking.

Steph Catley’s day was done and she was replaced by Courtney Nevin for a 15-minute cameo and Australia continued to search for goals to wrap up this ultimately successful Olympic qualifying second round campaign. The crowd of 19,084 started to thin out as families left, secure in the knowledge that their beloved Matildas had teed up an enormous must-win two-legged tie against one of the powerhouses of Asian women’s football. Sayer raced on to Kennedy’s long ball to tease in a cross that Yallop did well to challenge for with the goalkeeper, play paused while Ssu-Yu was scraped off the floor. You know when you’ve been in a challenge with Tameka Yallop.

Grant fired one in from distance, Foord continued to trick her way down the right, but there was no end result. The players seemed to be trying to tee up a goal for Amy Sayer, but it was Foord who looked the most likely, cutting inside once more to fire in a rocket that Ssu-Yu saved. Sayer almost got her chance when Gorry missed a header but she couldn’t react, Fowler smashed in a shot that went just wide, and the five minutes of added time were all played in the Chinese Taipei half. The final whistle saw players and fans punch the air, Men at Work blasted through the PA system, and Mary Fowler was announced as the player of the match.

The result was exactly what was required, the magnitude perhaps underwhelming, and all credit must go to the visiting Chinese Taipei team who battled well and soaked up the applause from their fans in the Southern corner of the stadium. A strange scene unfolded as the players would normally celebrate with their families, police present to supervise as the players got into their customary huddle. Tony Gustavsson was clearly happy with the outcome, and the players set off on their lap of the stadium, crossing over awkwardly with the Chinese Taipei team at halfway. This was a beautiful scenario, all fans happy, all players satisfied with the outcome and a huge roar enveloped the stadium as the young fans urged the players to approach the stands. Beatle-mania all over again. The Matildas had won the hearts of Perth and were leaving as even bigger heroes. The Chinese Taipei team passed the Shed to a chant of Taiwan, Taiwan.

We now await the configuration of the mysterious third round of Olympic qualifying. We know it will be home and away against a very difficult opponent, but we don’t know who, the AFC making up the rules as they go. A big thank you Western Australia for putting on a great show over the last week; this place is football crazy.

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