Australia against Great Britain for the very first time in football at an Olympic Games and now in a quarter-final. Prime-time on a Friday night.
It’s a monumental moment for a Matildas group that needs to capitalise on a special generation of players either with an Olympic medal in Tokyo or a legitimate tilt at the title at the World Cup here in Australia in 2023.
Two months ago, the chances of Olympic silverware seemed slim.
Under new coach Tony Gustavsson, the team was being pulled apart in warm-up matches with back-to-back heavy defeats against the Dutch and Germans, and the defensive deficiencies that plagued them at the World Cup in France in 2019 hadn’t seemed to have dissipated.
But slowly but surely, the improvement has come at Tokyo. A first-up win against New Zealand was expected but the performance was still impressive.
In the loss to the highly rated Swedes, they had plenty of chances to earn a result while the 0-0 draw with the number one-ranked Americans was an even contest until fading into a Simpsons meme as both sides settled for the draw.
Can we better the Brits?
So where does all of that leave us?
Tactically, we certainly seem more assured. Gustavsson has remodelled the defensive shape and while the Matildas still seem vulnerable on the counter-attack and easy to open up against the world’s best, the defensive system has definitely improved.
The surprise deployment of the rapid Ellie Carpenter into a central defensive role in a back three at times has helped add some pace in that area and counter a key deficiency in the team while Teagan Micah has displaced Lydia Williams in goal – a bold call from Gustavsson but one that seems accurate as it stands.
Up forward, a big ask heading into the Games was for some pressure to be taken off star striker Samantha Kerr.
While both missed the USA game through injury, Hayley Raso and Caitlin Foord have done that so far with energetic and creative contributions out wide while teenage starlet Mary Fowler has looked lively when called upon.
So, it’s the same old situation for the Matildas. The attack has the ability to win games against any opposition.
The defence, while improving, still seems susceptible to being exposed against a top-quality opponent.
And what sort of opponent are Great Britain?
In short, a formidable one and while Australia has never matched up against GB before, the players will be well accustomed from their domestic match-ups in England.
That’s where nearly all of their players derive from and therefore make up the majority of the England national team who have finished fourth and third in the last two World Cups.
With two wins and a draw, the Brits topped their group and in Manchester City’s Ellen White they have a two-time English player of the year who has three goals to her name in the tournament so far.
Fran Kirby teamed up with Sam Kerr at Chelsea to dominate the English league last season and after recovering from injury, the teammates will be at either end of the pitch this time around spearheading their respective attacks.
In Chelsea’s Kerr, Arsenal trio Williams, Steph Catley and Foord, Everton’s Raso, Tottenham’s Alanna Kennedy and the West Ham duo of Mackenzie Arnold and Emily Van Egmond, the Matildas will possess an excellent understanding of their opponents.
But there’s no doubt Great Britain deserve to go in as warm favourites and an Australian victory, while certainly possible, will be viewed as a triumph to treasure.
The Olyroos assessment
As ferocious as the build-up to the Matildas’ quarter-final will be, so too is the post-mortem over the Olyroos’ group stage exit.
Amid the disappointment of being knocked out from a position whereby progression to the knockouts was in their own hands, some of the positives of the campaign seem to have been cast aside.
Like actually qualifying in the first place. A task that wasn’t achieved for the two Olympic Games prior to Tokyo.
The complexities and difficulties of making it through in the Asian confederation are glossed over far too often but the hard fact that the last two Olyroos groups had failed to make it through that stage and into the Games, should already deliver this squad and its coaching staff with a fair chunk of credit on the balance sheet.
That’s coupled with a magical win over Argentina which was a performance – whereby they were the better team in possession when it was still 11 v 11 — and a score-line that few envisaged prior to the tournament.
The lack of an attacking game against Spain has been derided by some but the team legitimately could not get the ball to try and attack.
The gulf in class was enormous.
Australia were up against seven players who had just taken Spain to the semi-finals of the senior European Championships a few weeks prior.
To make a team of that talent have to work so hard to beat us late in the game was an undoubted tick for the defensive development as well as the intangible that is pure passion for the Australian shirt and the tournament cause.
There’s no doubt the first 45 minutes against Egypt was poor but it certainly wasn’t helped by the suspensions to Nathaniel Atkinson, Riley McGree and Mitch Duke.
The decision to leave Daniel Arzani on the bench for the first half is open to criticism but considering his scarcity of game time over the last three years, asking him to start three games in the space of six days may have been a big ask too.
The second-half performance was a marked improvement but the decision to opt for a centre-back as centre-forward for the last 20 minutes and launch long throws into the area will always be met with mass condemnation when it fails to pay off.
When the coach opts for that tactic, he simply has to wear the heat when the gamble misses.
And criticism he has most certainly received.
For some, Graham Arnold will never move past his last failed stint as Socceroos boss close to 15 years ago now and his proclamations of a medal for the team seemed to hinder him when the declaration wasn’t met.
But judging this most recent tenure as head of the national teams as they should be – in isolation — he’s arguably sitting even par with the major determinant of World Cup qualification for Qatar to therefore underline whether his second stint has succeeded or failed.
The lack of Aaron Mooy and Martin Boyle didn’t help but the quarter-final exit at the Asian Cup in 2019 was an underachievement.
But there is more reason for positivity than pessimism when you add up all the elements from Tokyo, including being alive in the group until the last minute of the final game, which was a surpass of expectations in itself.
The most important of all, however, is the emergence of the next generation, arguably our brightest bunch of talent in some time.
In Thomas Deng and Harry Souttar looms a 10-year Socceroos centre-back partnership. Atkinson excelled against some of the world’s best, in particular the Spain game at right-back. Through the A-League finals and now the Olympics, Marco Tilio has jumped out as a potential national team number 10 while McGree’s performances always seem to lift with the standard.
And then there’s Daniel Arzani. The 2018 World Cup wunderkind who was patchy after so long out with injury but has shown he still has the semblance of magic to be Australia’s next top-class player and Socceroo lynchpin.
There is fair reason to be encouraged about the future.