Matildas kick off World Cup year by thrashing Czechs on night full of positives for Australia, history for Polkinghorne

GOSFORD, Australia -- The Matildas started 2023 as they ended 2022, recording a solid 4-0 win over the Czech Republic in their opening match of the Cup of Nations.

Australia started brightly at the beginning of both halves but it was the second one where they clicked into gear when Hayley Raso opened the scoring two minutes after the break.

Sam Kerr was untouchable as she glided across the top of the box to lay it off for Raso, with the final shot taking a deflection wrongfooting Olivie Lukasova. She made it a double seven minutes later when a Steph Catley corner was whipped in to the far post and put back into the danger zone by Clare Hunt and Raso pounced for her 12th goal in green and gold.

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Kerr added a third thanks to the sheer willpower of Alex Chidiac who had just entered the fray. Her ability to be out on the right for the one-two before finding herself at the top of the D to get the ball in a position for Kerr to poach was classic Chidiac.

In her milestone match -- where she became the most capped Australian footballer of all time -- Clare Polkinghorne made it four, with a side-foot finish from the corner.

Despite a solid spell in the middle of the first half with chances to Jitka Chlastakova and Michaela Khyrova, the Czech Republic could not find the back of the net.

Rapid reaction

1. A successful first hitout for the Matildas in 2023

The nature of the February international window means teams are able to replicate a tournament format in a friendly capacity. Tony Gustavsson's side have had World Cup dress rehearsals before but now, in the year of the Women's World Cup, things are a little different.

"Everything we do now is like a World Cup rehearsal," Gustavsson said at the prematch news conference. "It doesn't mean the focus is only on winning in that sense, but we need to train the tournament format.

"Every opening game in a tournament is important because it kind of sets the tone for the tournament."

So what tone did the Matildas strike in this hypothetical tournament opener? A positive one. A win is a win in tournament football, after all.

Gustavsson saw the Czech Republic as being a similar test to the Republic of Ireland, the World Cup co-hosts' opponents in the opening match, and in the first half that comparison really revealed itself. The Matildas were unable to capitalise on their bursts of good play and the Czech Republic proved to be as tricky to break down as expected.

However, they were able to turn things around in the second half and ended the night convincingly. Even though the best efforts can be made to replicate the World Cup environment, in terms of game management and work load, some things just can't be faked.

"It's pretty impossible to get that feeling of it being a World Cup," defender Catley said postmatch. "That many people in the stands and we did sort of say that, we said if you're frustrated now, imagine what it would be like in front of 80,000 in the stands, everybody screaming. With that kind of feeling behind you, it would be all that much harder."

"So i think getting on top of it now and learning the lessons that we did tonight and being able to get through, it is really important. But nothing really replicates the World Cup but then you add more adrenaline, more energy, that sort of thing, so that can help us as well."

2. Turning frustration into goals

An early criticism of the Matildas in the Gustavsson era was their inability to channel frustration into something fruitful. Countless time, the question would be asked of him and his team as to how they could turn sights on goal into actual goals and work their way around a low-block defence.

Earlier in Gustavsson's tenure, the Matildas wouldn't have come up with the answers, but tonight in Gosford they did and in doing so showed another important mark of progress.

"In the first half, there's no space because they're so compact, but also we played too slow and those two, we've seen it before in football, how difficult is to break down when there's no space." Gustavsson said.

"It takes two to tango and and we need space for our runners and such and we didn't really get that momentum going. But also playing a low block is a process. You need to wear a team down and maybe it opens up the last 30 and then it takes patience and belief and I think the team showed them a lot of maturity tonight."

Once the Matildas returned to the pitch, they looked rejuvenated and were able to finally break down the Czech defence. Not only did they take the inch they were given but put the Czechs to the sword with four goals.

3. With pressure to impress, who rose to the occasion?

With so few opportunities left to impress Gustavsson and stake a claim on a World Cup squad spot, every single minute in every training session and every match is vitally important. Raso's brace showed that the Matildas' reliance on Kerr for goals continues to ease. And for Raso's own game, two goals when her match minutes haven't been forthcoming at Manchester City ensures that her claim at a starting wing spot has solidified.

Chidiac instantly impressed off the bench, as she has done in most of her Matildas cameos. It was once again her combination of run, harry, and intelligence, that set up Australia's third goal. Perhaps what was most impressive was the diminutive Chidiac bodying the Czech defender to ensure she got first dibs on the recycled ball.

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Meanwhile, Clare Hunt didn't look out of place in her first half as a Matilda with Gustavsson effusive in his praise of the centre-back.

"I mean think about it, it is 0-0 against Czech Republic, it's a World Cup year ." Gustavsson said. "She hasn't played a minute. She goes in at half time to a team that struggled in the first half, and she should looks like she's done nothing, but play with us. For me, that's massive."

Goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold didn't have much to do in the second half but stood up in the first. The form she has been consistently producing at West Ham United was finally shown in national team colours and it was a just reward. After 391 days between Matildas starts, she may have re-entered the starting 'keeper chat.

Best and worst performers

BEST: Hayley Raso -- The Manchester City forward scored a double and proved her credentials as not just as a pacy wing option but someone who can finish their chances to boot.

BEST: Clare Hunt -- A debutant who didn't look out of place. Any centre-back who does well for the Matildas is a welcome sight.

BEST: Alex Chidiac -- Once again Chidiac played the game changer role to perfection. She's doing so well she's pushing for a staring position.

WORST: Mary Fowler -- Fowler didn't provide much in a role that seemed perfect for her to exploit.

WORST: Aivi Luik -- Her turnover put the nation's collective hearts in their mouths and it led to her substitution.

WORST: Olivie Lukasova -- It was a rough night for the Czech 'keeper.

Highlights and notable moments

The second half saw the introduction of Clare Squared... Polkinghorne in her 152nd game became Australia's all-time most-capped player ...

,,, while Hunt became the newest Matilda.

After the match: What managers, players said

Catley on what needed to be done to beat the Czechs: "It's a game where you've got to wear the other team down. So, everyone who started did a really good job at wearing the players down. So it was sort of more open when the subs came on and I think they took full advantage of that and everyone that came on did an awesome job.'

Gustavsson on Hunt's debut: "I'm gonna be honest, this might be too big of a headline, but I'm not sure I've seen this type of debut under my two years in this team."

Raso on Hunt's introduction: "I was so happy to see her get her call-up. And then to come on today, I was like to her, 'Are you ready?' And she was like 'Yeah, I'm ready.' And I was like, 'Go on.'"

Key stats

- Clare Polkinghorne became the most-capped Australian footballer of all-time with her 152nd appearance for the Matildas.

- Clare Hunt became the 224th Matilda to don the green-and-gold in her international debut.

Up next

Australia: The Matildas will be out for revenge as they take on Spain in Parramatta on Sunday. La Roja started their Cup of Nations with a 3-0 win over Jamaica while the Matildas defeated the Czech Republic 4-0.

Czech Republic: Up next for the Czech Republic is Jamaica who suffered a 3-0 loss at the hands of Spain. The Czech Republic will also be looking for their first win of the tournament after going down to the Matildas 4-0.