Australia ended 2022 with four straight wins and back-to-back clean sheets with a 2-0 win over Thailand in Gosford. Sam Kerr headed home her 12th goal for the Matildas this year in the first half before Hayley Raso scored her 10th goal for the national team to double the Australians' lead in the second half.
Head coach Tony Gustavsson spoke of the need to start fast and strong against a traditionally tricky opponent for the Matildas and his team did exactly that. However, they could not find the back of the net. It wasn't for a lack of trying with Raso having a goal disallowed, Kerr hitting the underside of the crossbar and Clare Polkinghorne having a bevy of headed chances. Kerr eventually found the breakthrough, heading home off a Katrina Gorry corner in the 40th minute. Thailand proved to be as tough an opponent as ever with their desperate defending and goalkeeper Warapom Boonsing keeping the Matildas at bay.
Down the other end of the park, they made Australia panic most notably through Orapin Waenngoen. Her first chance had Teagan Micah scrambling though it was ultimately wide before forcing the Aussie goalkeeper into a save with her feet.
It was a much better start to the second half for the Matildas with Raso netting Australia's second in the 47th minute. She combined well with Emily van Egmond in the build-up before doing all the work, dribbling past the defender, burning her for pace, and finishing cleanly. The chances kept coming for Australia with Mary Fowler, Kyra Cooney-Cross, and Van Egmond getting in on the act but the score line remained 2-0.
1. Old frustrations, new feelings
The stat sheet told the story; the Matildas ended the game with 31 shots, nine of them on target, but only two goals in the back of the net. This discrepancy between shot creation and actual scoring output isn't a new phenomenon for the Aussies. In 2022, the Matildas have made a habit of getting lots of shots away without that translating on to the scoresheet.
The Aussies had 15 shots with two on target in their 1-0 loss to South Korea and consequently exited the Asian Cup at the quarterfinal stage. Against Canada in a friendly later in the year, the team had seven shots on target, 16 overall, and no goals in a 1-0 loss.
Even when the result did go the Matildas way, there was still an element of frustration as evidenced by the reactions after the team's two game series against New Zealand in April. The Matildas scored two goals from 15 shots on target and 37 overall in Townsville before netting three times in a game that saw them have 23 shots with eight on target in Canberra.
While fans, Gustavsson and the players themselves would much prefer to be converting their shots on goal at a higher rate, the reaction to this type of game appears to have changed. And the Matildas' good run of results has played a big role in that.
Now, rather than an insurmountable weakness, this profligacy feels like a bump in the road but something that can be overcome.
2. Confidence and momentum
It wouldn't be unfair to say that morale among fans and the perception of the Matildas after the two losses to Canada in September were both low. Results weren't forthcoming, progress felt minimal. Gustavsson was asking the Australian footballing public to believe based on snippets rather than full performances.
But in the two windows since, the Matildas have been on the up. Wins against Denmark and South Africa were necessary and important. The team played well and began to show more of what Gustavsson had been spruiking but they needed to be backed up by results against Sweden and Thailand. The Matildas' 4-0 rout of Sweden felt unexpected but was a much-needed injection of joy. The 2-0 victory over Thailand was a reminder that there are still things to be worked on but was a result nonetheless. When asked to reflect on the year as a whole and where Australia was placed in terms of World Cup preparations, Gustavsson was cautiously optimistic after the final whistle.
"It's difficult to say are we where we need to be, where I expected us to be? I just feel that we've finished the year on a really good note with I think 13 goals in four games, conceded two, two clean sheets, four wins and that is not because we won, it's the performances behind those wins that I'm happy with. So we're heading in the right direction."
He went on to speak about how wins create confidence and momentum and eight months out from the World Cup on Australian shores, those two intangibles are exactly what the doctor ordered for this team.
3. Polkinghorne joins an exclusive club
A little slice of Australian football history occurred on the Central Coast against Thailand. Clare Polkinghorne took to the park for Australia for the 151st time. In doing so she equalled the Australian national team appearance record held by Cheryl Salisbury.
There wasn't too much fanfare considering the magnitude of the achievement but that's exactly how Polkinghorne would have liked it.
Only three players in the history of Australian national teams have ever played 150 games and they are all Matildas; Salisbury, Polkinghorne, and Lisa De Vanna.
Salisbury and Polkinghorne's careers overlapped for a few years while she and De Vanna co-captained Australia for a period of time. Both women are undeniably important to the history of the women's game in Australia, a fact that is not lost on Polkinghorne when she was asked about joining such illustrious company.
"Cheryl is a legend of the game and just what she was able to do for our sport in this country is incredible and Lisa De Vanna's the same," Polkinghorne told media in the lead-up to the November window.
"Both fantastic players and really, I think, changed the path for women's football in Australia. It makes me a little uncomfortable to put myself in the same light as them."
While she will have to suffer in the limelight a little longer, with her next game in green and gold set to break the record, this discomfort at the attention feels indicative of Polkinghorne and her career.
A solid central defender, she has always done her job for the team with no fuss. But beneath that is a deep adoration for her teammates and her country, a love that overflows whenever she manages to score a goal and into her celebrations.
Although she may be uncomfortable to place herself among two of the greats of Australian women's football, it is a place she most certainly belongs.
Australia: Teagan Micah 6, Charli Grant 6, Clare Polkinghorne 6, Steph Catley 6, Courtney Nevin 7, Katrina Gorry 7, Kyra Cooney-Cross 8, Hayley Raso 8, Caitlin Foord 7, Sam Kerr 7, Cortnee Vine 6.
Subs: Larissa Crummer 5, Emily van Egmond 6, Mary Fowler 6, Alex Chidiac 5, Elise Kellond-Knight 5, Matilda McNamara 5.
Thailand: Warapom Boonsing 6, Kanjanapom Saenkhun 6, Silawan Intamee 6, Nipawan Punyosuk 4, Chatchawan Rodthong 5, Nutwadee Pramak 5, Orapin Waenngoen 6, Taneekan Dandga 5, Panittha Jeeratanapavibul 4, Kanyanat Chatthabutr 5, Sudarat Chuchun 3.
Subs: Pattaranan Aupachai 5, Supaparon Intaraprasit 4, Ploychompoo Somnonk 5, Irravadee Makris 5, Jiraporn Mongkoldee 4, Saowalak Pengngam 4.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Kyra Cooney-Cross
The young midfielder has grown into her role in midfield and produced a strong offensive and defensive performance.
WORST: Sudarat Chuchun
The left back was routinely exposed with the Matildas finding plenty of joy attacking down the right-hand flank during Chuchun's 38 minutes on the park.
Highlights and notable moments
After 979 days, Elise Kellond-Knight returned to the park in an Australian jersey. With over 100 caps for her country, her journey back to the national team after her initial ACL injury in 2020 was much longer and more painful than anyone could have expected, requiring multiple surgeries, hours of rehab, and the possibility of retirement very real.
She'd spoken about her happiness at being able to be back in camp and back training with her teammates. By the smile on her face, that happiness turned into elation when she finally ran out onto the pitch in green and gold.
Nominative determinism is alive and well in Australian football with the Matildas latest debutant, Matilda McNamara.
A MATILDA NAMED MATILDA, THE PROPHECY IS FULFILLED— Marissa Lordanic (@marissalordanic) November 15, 2022
great to see Matilda McNamara join the likes of Petr Čech, Stephen Ireland and Bethany England in playing international football for her namesake team #AUSvTHA— Dale (@dale_roots) November 15, 2022
In amongst the signs asking for shirts and boots and autographs was this beauty. You can't be what you can't see.
After the match: What the players and managers said
Elise Kellond-Knight on her first game in two-and-a-half years: "Yeah, it was a complicated injury. So there were times, I thought I would never play football again so to pull on the green and gold now, it's a massive achievement."
Matildas head coach, Tony Gustavsson on Thailand's two best defenders: "I think we need to give credit to the Thailand goalkeeper. I think she had a phenomenal game and also I think the woodwork had a phenomenal game."
Key stats (via ESPN Stats & Info)
- Sam Kerr's 12 goals in a calendar year are the most she has scored for the Matildas in her career.
- Clare Polkinghorne's 151 caps equals the record set by Cheryl Salisbury for most international appearances made by any Australian player.
Australia: The next time the Matildas play it will be in a year where they will host a World Cup. However, no games have been scheduled as yet.
Thailand: Thailand's next test is the inter-confederation playoff tournament in New Zealand to determine the final three Women's World Cup teams. Thailand will play Cameroon on Feb. 18 with the winner to face Portugal.