The uncertainty around the AFC Group B Olympic qualification matches due to the Corona virus outbreak caused chaos for the Federations involved - however it appears to have presented the Matildas with a perfect scenario as they chase the dream of a podium finish in Tokyo later this year.
An extended time in camp together in Sydney, means there is no excuse for a poor opening performance against Chinese Taipei as the Matildas kick off their mini tournament in Campbelltown on Friday.
Matildas' Olympic track record
The Matildas have qualified for the Olympics on three occasions.
Sydney 2000 - as Olympic hosts they had automatic qualification but did not progress beyond the group stage.
Athens 2004 - a win, draw and loss in the group stage was enough to progress however Australia was defeated by Sweden in the Quarter-finals. Rio de Janeiro 2016 - After a 12-year drought, the Matildas went to Brazil full of confidence. Once more a win, a draw and a loss in the group stage gave them another shot at the Quarter-finals however they fell to the hosts in a truly heartbreaking penalty shoot out, which Alanna Kennedy for one, will not want to relive.
With the men's team (the Olyroos) recently earning a spot in Tokyo, this could be the first time in 16 years that Australia will feature both men's and women's teams in Olympic football competition.
The task ahead
As Asia's top ranked team, the Matildas entered the qualifying campaign in this third round and must finish in the top two in their group to progress to the final stage of AFC (Asian Football Confederation) qualification. Currently ranked 7th in the FIFA Women's Rankings they will face Chinese Taipei (40th), Thailand (38th) and China (15th) in Group B.
While China has qualified for the Olympics on five previous occasions it would be the first time for Thailand and Chinese Taipei.
The top two teams in Group B will progress to the final stage of qualification where they will meet the corresponding teams from Group A comprised of South Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar (after North Korea withdrew).
The country finishing on top of group B will play the second placed team in group A in a two-legged tie and vice versa with the two winners earning a spot on the plane for Tokyo.
Star of the show
All the signs point to this being Hayley Raso's time to shine. After missing out on the Rio Olympics in 2016 and breaking three verterbrae in 2018 there is no doubt the talented forward has earned this chance.
Looking razor sharp in the Matildas training camp, Raso is continuing the club form she showed in the W-League for Brisbane Roar which saw her recently picked up by English Super League side Everton.
With Sam Kerr's quad issues being carefully managed ahead of her return to WSL giants Chelsea, watch for the flying ribbons of Hayley Raso as she combines in attack with Chloe Logarzo, Caitlin Foord and an in-form Kyah Simon.
One to watch
Karly Roestbakken continues to repay the faith shown in her when she received a last minute call-up to the Women's World Cup squad in France last year. The Canberra United co-captain is rumoured to be on her way to a European club in the near future and based on her current form that interest comes as no surprise. After making her debut in the W-League at just 15 years of age, four years on, she has sharpened her skills, gone from strength to strength and is now a true weapon either shoring up the defence or equally further up the park in the midfield.
No cruise control
This is the first time the side has assembled since November 2019 and the enforced extension to the camp has given coach Ante Milicic more time with his players than he could have hoped for but he is not seeing the lowly rankings of the opposition as a free pass down easy street.
His mantra is that the side will play their own way. Pragmatic football is not the Milicic method and he is looking at this as preparation for the Olympics and just one step on that journey.
The extra days have allowed the coaching staff to train the players at a higher intensity and increase the load on bodies unaccustomed to those demands. While the W-League provides valuable match minutes it doesn't always make for ideal preparation for the step up to international football.
The advantage of players not having to cross time zones multiple times en route to these qualifiers is an advantage not taken lightly nor one that is enjoyed regularly for Australia's national teams.
If, as expected, Australia finish in the top 2 in their group the players will depart for their clubs on the 14th of February only to return to camp on the 29th where they will prepare for the home and away final stage playoffs - involving quick turnarounds and for some, plenty of air miles.
Milicic is unlikely to deploy Sam Kerr for much of this series if not required, and between Raso, Logarzo and Foord the side is not lacking for pace and creativity. With Simon in good touch and Katrina Gorry showing consistency in the midfield his options going forward should deal with the opposition comfortably.
Chinese Taipei may be 33 ranking spots below the Matildas, however they showed in their opening victory over Thailand that they are not as easy to break down as one might assume. Coached by Echigo Kazuo, a former Japanese International (and Katrina Gorry's former coach at Vegalta Sendai Ladies) he has his side playing neat and tidy football.
It's also worth remembering that the Thai side that Chinese Taipei defeated just days ago, gave the Matildas significant headaches in the semi finals of the most recent AFC Women's Asian Cup so it's not possible to take anything for granted in the next week. That being said, the Matildas definitely go into Friday's encounter as heavy favourites and Campbelltown Stadium (Alanna Kennedy's old stomping ground) presents an excellent opportunity to draw a line under a disappointing World Cup and build momentum for Tokyo.
Monday, 3 February 2020
Thailand 0 - 1 Chinese Taipei
Friday, 7 February 2020
China PR v Thailand - 4.30pm (AEDT)
Australia v Chinese Taipei - 7.30pm (AEDT)
Campbelltown Stadium, Leumeah
Monday, 10 February 2020
Chinese Taipei v China PR - 4.30pm (AEDT)
Thailand v Australia - 7.30pm (AEDT)
Campbelltown Stadium, Leumeah
Thursday, 13 February 2020
Australia v China PR - 7.30pm (AEDT)
Western Sydney Stadium, Parramatta