A disciplined and resolute performance from the Matildas earned them a valuable point in a goalless draw against heavyweights USA – and assured their place in the knockout stages of the Olympics.
The Australian side appeared more than willing to settle for a draw in the final quarter of the match, betting that other results would not only seal their place in the knockout rounds, but hand them a more favourable opponent.
The nil-all result ensured the Matildas would finish third in their group, behind Sweden and the USA. But it also meant that if China – winless in their opening two matches – stunned the heavyweight Netherlands by a significant margin later on Tuesday night, the Matildas would have faced a shock exit.
Fortunately, the Netherlands crushed China 8-2, handing Australia a place in the quarter finals – and a date with Great Britain, rather than the dangerous Dutch side.
Having shipped four goals to a slick Swedish side in their second game, a reshuffled Australian defence stifled a star-studded American attack, particularly using the off-side trap to great effect.
In an evenly-matched battle between two teams most dangerous on the counter-attack, neither side managed to assert superiority the ball – but both sides came within inches of scoring in an engrossing clash.
First, 18-year-old Matildas starlet Mary Fowler – a late injury replacement to start for the first time in the Olympics – sent a powerful header into the crossbar. Then the Australians were spared by the barest of margins as US star Alex Morgan found the net with a first-half header of her own, only to be called back for an incredibly tight off-side.
The draw was just the fifth time in 30 meetings with the USA that the Matildas have avoided defeat.
AS IT HAPPENED
The US Women’s National Team (USWNT) is the dominant team in the women’s game, having won 44 matches in a row before they were stunned by Sweden in their opening match of the group stage. The powerhouse side have also won three of the last four Olympic gold medals.
But under the guise of coach Tony Gustavsson, a previous assistant coach of the USWNT, the Matildas showed no fear in an opening half where neither team controlled proceedings, but both sides fashioned chances.
Gustavsson also reverted to a four-person defensive line, bringing in veteran centre-back Alanna Kennedy to partner Clare Polkinghorne. Chloe Logarzo was also named for her first minutes of the tournament after an injury to Hayley Raso, while Caitlin Foord’s injury in the warm-ups saw teen starlet Fowler also handed her first start of the Games.
Seven minutes in, superstar US attacker Alex Morgan raced towards the Australian box on a blistering counter-attack, outmuscling Australia’s Tameka Yallop before rifling her shot straight to the chest of Matildas keeper Teagan Micah.
In the 18th minute, fullback Ellie Carpenter launched a long throw towards the box. Alanna Kennedy flicked the ball towards the back post with her head, and Fowler powered a header towards goal – only to be denied by the crossbar.
Long throw-ins were repeatedly employed in an attempt to use Australia’s height and attacking weaponry inside the box – foremost among them captain Sam Kerr, who scored three headed goals in Australia’s opening two games.
But just a handful of minutes later the Matildas – having been so unlucky with Fowler’s missed attempt – had their own stroke of good fortune when Tameka Yallop escaped serious punishment for a horrible tackle. Yallop lunged in on Samantha Mewis in a tackle that could well have earned a yellow card – or red – but escaped without the referee intervening.
And Australia’s lucky streak continued just past the half-hour mark. A well-worked corner routine saw Kelley O’Hara curl a dangerous cross towards Alex Morgan, who was left unmarked as the Australian defence stepped up to spring the off-side trap. Morgan made no mistake with her header, burying it in the back of the net – but the assistant referee called it off-side and VAR confirmed the decision by mere millimetres.
In the 43rd minute – in a near identical play to Australia’s opening goal of the tournament – Sam Kerr carried the ball towards the box before playing Yallop through on goal to her right. But, unlike in the victory over New Zealand last week, Yallop this time fired straight at the keeper.
Then on the brink of halftime, Kerr raced to get on the end of a ball bouncing towards the US goal, until Julie Ertz cleared the danger with an incredible last-ditch tackle. Ertz’s desperate intervention robbed Kerr of an immense opportunity to take the lead from close range.
Australia started the second half brightly, with Fowler rifling a shot past the side netting following a beautifully-timed run into the box.
Then the US had one of the best opportunities of the match when Kristen Press managed to outpace Carpenter – a rare instance – and roared into the box, but only scooped a poor shot into the grateful gloves of Micah.
Less than a minute later, Australian attacker Kyah Simon managed to find space between the US defensive and midfield lines, turning and unleashing a shot that was blocked well by a lunging American defender.
Australia’s off-side trap was working superbly. After catching the American attackers off-side four times in the first half, the Matildas’ well-drilled back line managed to snare a full six USA players off-side on one free-kick 13 minutes into the second stanza.
Kyra Cooney-Cross was introduced for the hard-running Chloe Logarzo after an hour.
US star Megan Rapinoe had picked up a yellow card in the opening half for kicking the ball away, and after a foul on Ellie Carpenter in the 64th minute, she was substituted.
The tempo began to slow in the final quarter of the match, with both teams willing to cede possession in favour of maintaining defensive discipline – and limiting the potential impact of each other’s dangerous counter-attacks at pace.
Instead, the Matildas were largely allowed to hold possession and pass between defenders, the USA seemingly content with a draw that would keep them ahead of the Australians on goal difference.
The Matildas, for their part, showed little urgency with the ball, instead hoping a frustrated American side would press in defence and create opportunities for a rapid end-to-end assault.
Kyah Simon was brought off in the 84th minute Emily Gielnik entered to shore up the defence.
There were some fears for Sam Kerr after she went to ground in the dying stages of the match, but returned to the field after receiving sideline treatment. It follows an injury scare in the Matildas’ defeat to Sweden, in which Kerr appeared in serious discomfort after an early incident but played out the full 90 minutes.
AS IT STANDS
The Aussies are likely to go through as one of the best third-placed teams, in which case they would face the Group E winner – either Great Britain or Canada, whoever wins their match beginning at 9pm EST tonight.
But shock results could rob the Matildas of a place in the knockout stages. Japan are likely to beat winless Chile. If that happens – and if China manage to upset heavyweights Netherlands by a significant margin, that would be enough to send the Matildas home.
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