SYDNEY -- Australia won the Cup of Nations with their 3-2 win over Spain securing the Matildas the silverware after a three-goal first half for the 2023 Women's World Cup co-hosts preceded a late rally from La Roja.
Clare Polkinghorne continues to moonlight as a striker as she added a second goal to the scoresheet and goal No. 16 to her own international tally. Sam Kerr could only muster a looping header following Raso's cross but Polkinghorne was in the right place -- aided by a favourable bounce -- to finish from an acute angle.
Caitlin Foord, on her return to the starting lineup, made it three by ghosting between the Spanish defenders to head home from a Steph Catley set piece -- one of the Matildas most valuable attacking weapons.
The away side dominated the second half, creating wave after wave of attack, obviously building to some sort of end product. Some of their best chances came through the likes of Alba Redondo, Esther Gonzalez and Olga Carmona with Mackenzie Arnold being called on to make some super saves. But the Aussie shot-stopper could not keep out Olga's strike in the 74th minute.
Redondo made it 3-2 in the 90th minute with a clean strike from close range to make things interesting but Australia did enough to secure their sixth straight win.
1. Pressing vs. passing
In the lead-up to the match Australia head coach Tony Gustavsson labelled this game a battle of pressing vs. passing. Spanish football is known globally for its beautiful passing movements and flowing football -- regardless of gender or age. The Matildas have always been a team lauded for their physicality, which has been channeled into elite pressing.
The question for Australia became how best to approach the problem Spain presented. They could have set up more defensively, using a more traditional No. 6 to clean up messes while still adopting a whole-team pressing approach. But Gustavsson has spoken throughout his entire tenure about the attacking DNA of this Matildas side. To take an even hypothetical step back seemed at odds with what the Swede has been preaching for two years now.
Instead, the Matildas adopted the 4-4-2 that brought them so much joy in the back half of last year, which allowed Kerr and Foord to press the centre-backs centrally, with Kyra Cooney-Cross and Katrina Gorry behind them and Vine and Raso out wide with Catley and Charli Grant in their respective full-back positions.
While the full-field press from the Matildas offered one option to combat Spain, it produced another simultaneously. The Matildas often hunt in packs in the centre of the park when they press -- if one is sticking the boot in to get the ball away from the opposition, the other is there to run away with the loose ball. Several times this happened, and then a direct pass could be laid off to any one of Kerr, Foord, Raso or Vine.
By virtue of being so top-heavy, the Matildas were never short of options to exploit these transition moments. While Gustavsson praised this element of his team's attack, he was just as happy with the variation in their attack as a whole from combination play to set pieces.
While the team admitted to dropping off their press in the second half, they now have another 45 minutes of evidence as to what they are capable of.
2. The redemption of Mackenzie Arnold
It would be fair to say that the first time these two sides met, in June last year, no one in green-and-gold had a particularly fun day. Spain put seven past Australia in what was the team's joint-second worst defeat of all-time. Yes, the Matildas allowed several players to miss the window, giving them a rest and allowing other players a chance to taste international football, but that was little consolation for those who took to the pitch, like Mackenzie Arnold.
After the Matildas held on to half-time only down 1-0, Arnold was subbed on for the second half. It was then that Spain asserted their dominance, piling on goal after goal. While correlation doesn't equal causation, Arnold struggled to regain the gloves at international level. Her form became perplexing; she was so crucial and so dependable for West Ham but seemingly couldn't reproduce that form for the Matildas.
The game against the Czech Republic saw her first start for the national team in 391 days and her first appearance since that Spain loss. She entered the window off fine form at club level. This time, for Australia, she delivered and backed it up again against Spain.
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She was there to paw away close shots, was excellent with her feet, and while the Matildas still conceded two, Arnold had already proved that she had turned whatever literal or metaphorical corner she needed to. Gustavsson was delighted for her.
"I'm extremely happy for Macca because she has brought the club form and again, this is not what we've done," he said postmatch. "It's what she's done in club and she's brought it into the national team and she had in the past, this is her own words, maybe not been able to bring the club performance into the national team environment. This camp, she has. I think she's grown mentally and physically to be able to bring that."
Her teammate Emily van Egmond dubbed her the player of the match, and you'd be hard pressed to find a better candidate.
3. A less than 90 minute performance was a... good thing?
It seems counter-intuitive to say that the Matildas not putting in a 90-minute shift five months out from the World Cup is actually exactly what they should be doing. But both Gustavsson and his team have consistently rammed home the fact that the Cup of Nations is a practice run for the World Cup.
The thing about practice runs is they don't have to be perfect. And this game against Spain, while confidence-inducing and enjoyable from a fan perspective, was not perfect. The team has such little time together, and even less time to practice in-game scenarios.
With a cushy 3-0 lead at half-time, rather than sit back or keep their foot on the accelerator, the team changed formations. Several substitutions were made with Gustavsson pointing out they shifted to a more fluid back five in defence, back three in attack setup during the second half.
Using these opportunities to their fullest while also building the confidence of players and fans and honing what will need to be implemented come July is a tough balancing act but, tonight at least, the Matildas seemed to tick all three boxes.
"I thought we came out, started really well, on the front foot, but at the end of the day, this is a prep for the World Cup." captain Kerr said postmatch.
"So we wanted to try different things and a result against this team, that has had some really big results over the last six, seven months, they beat the USA, they tied with Sweden. So we're really proud of ourselves. Obviously would have liked to have finished the game a bit stronger. But this is the time to like I said, prepare for the World Cup try anything."
Best and worst performers
Hayley Raso: The Matildas winger backed up her great performance against the Czech Republic with a particularly stunning first half against Spain
Mackenzie Arnold: The West Ham 'keeper was huge for the Matildas, preventing at least three near certain goals for Spain.
Olga Carmona: The Real Madrid player was particularly good in attack and scored a stunning strike to get Spain on the board in the second half.
Larissa Crummer: She was the Matildas substitute who was given the most time on the park but she was practically unsighted for her 32-minute cameo.
Jenni Hermoso: Barring one shot on target, the most-capped player in this Spanish national side did not show much of the play that had defenders across the globe shaking in their boots.
Ivana Andres: The left-back was routinely showed up in the first half against the pace and guile of both Vine and Raso.
Highlights and notable moments
Football Australia partnered with Sydney WorldPride 2023 earlier in the week and the Matildas proudly wore LGBTQIA+ Pride-coloured numbers on the back of their jerseys for the game against Spain. It's the first time an Australian national football team has taken part in a Pride initiative and it looked pretty schmick as well.
We 🏳️🌈LOVE🏳️🌈 to see it pic.twitter.com/W39zr1PaAz— Marissa Lordanic (@marissalordanic) February 19, 2023
Vine is still a newbie on the Matildas block but she may have already scored one of the best strikes of her budding national team career. The poor spiders had no chance.
After the match: What managers, players said
Kerr on Foord's goal: "Her goal actually, she was meant to be blocking for me and I told her don't block for me, you can just get in and I should have gone myself actually, because I probably would have scored."
Foord on the performance: "It's annoying to concede but I mean at the end of the day, you're going to tell me we'd beat Spain 3-2, I'd take that."
Kerr on the Pride numbers: "We have such an inclusive team -- always have and probably always will be. So it was something we were really excited about."
- The Matildas are currently on a six game winning streak, stretching back to October 2022.
- Spain conceded three goals in a game for the first time in 51 games.
Australia: With the Matildas win, they have claimed the Cup of Nations. They will look to round out the tournament with a win against Jamaica.
Spain: While Spain's loss is a blip, they will look to finish the Cup of Nations strongly as they face the Czech Republic.