Mary Fowler, Michelle Heyman provide answers but Olympic questions linger for Matildas

TFP: Heyman pivotal in filling Matildas' Kerr-sized gap (2:14)

The Far Post podcast praise 35-year-old Michelle Heyman's return to the Matildas, and the value her instincts and intent would bring to their Olympic campaign. (2:14)

The Matildas' first two Sam Kerr-less games of 2024 have guaranteed many more fixtures of importance without her, as Australia defeated Uzbekistan 13-0 on aggregate in their two-legged Olympic qualifier.

But emphatic qualification wasn't the only thing gained from this international window. As Tony Gustavsson and his team ponder how to navigate a major tournament without Kerr -- one that has never felt more important after fourth-placed finishes at the Women's World Cup and Tokyo 2020 -- the qualifiers have answered a very important question.

The Kerr-sized hole in this lineup cannot be filled by a mythical Kerr replacement that doesn't exist. There's no one who can do what she does, the way she does it, and with the consistency and finesse that she provides. The hole left by Kerr isn't filled by a single puzzle piece but rather a mosaic; but the Matildas appear to be collecting all the right pieces.

- Subscribe to ESPN's Women's Football Podcast: The Far Post

There's Mary Fowler with her ability to create something out of nothing and her traction engine of a foot. There's Caitlin Foord and her chemistry with those around her and ability to play across the line. And there's Michelle Heyman and her striker's instincts and clinical finishing by foot and head.

However, these answers to the Kerr question provide their own supplementary questions that need to be solved as Paris approaches.

Fowler is lauded as both a current star and the focal point around which the future Australian attack will be built, and Australians are not alone in taking notice.

Aitana Bonmatí knows a thing or two about football. The World Cup, Golden Ball, FIFA Best, Ballon d'Or UEFA Player of the Year and UEFA Champions League MVP winner was asked by DAZN who had surprised her most at the World Cup. She picked Fowler.

Calling her one of the revelations of the future, Bonmati seems to agree with what most fans and pundits in Australia have known for years: Fowler is different gravy.

Every time she pulls on the green-and-gold jersey, she provides a moment of brilliance that elicits goosebumps from Matildas fans. It's usually the cherry on top of a performance that sees her float around the attacking third, picking out passes, making runs, fizzing shots, and pressing when required.

The ferocity with which she can strike the ball never gets less enthralling. Not when she hit that penalty against France with such force that its impact could be heard in the nosebleeds. Not when she unleashed from the top of the D to put the Matildas two goals up in Tashkent in the first leg of their Olympic qualifier against Uzbekistan. And not when she scored from 12 yards while in motion, forcing Uzbekistan goalkeeper Maftuna Jonimqulova to pick the ball from her net for the sixth time that evening in Melbourne.

Fowler, and her place in the lineup, was a conundrum earlier in the Gustavsson era. The move to a fluid front four, which on its day is world-beating, allowed Fowler to do what she does best: Roam with the knowledge that she will get herself exactly where she needs to be, performing unspoken choreography with the likes of Kerr, Foord, Hayley Raso, Cortnee Vine, and Emily van Egmond.

It's all of this and her X factor that make her a lock for almost every Matildas starting XI.

But the situation couldn't be more different at her club.

Fowler will play a role in any success the Matildas enjoy this year. But after starting for Manchester City in the first six weeks of their Women's Super League campaign, she is seemingly no longer a player manager Gareth Taylor considers a key part of his starting XI. She's been given just 86 minutes in her next seven appearances in the league, and a mixed bag of game time in the two domestic cup competitions have seen her often come on in place of striker Khadija Shaw, an hour or so into proceedings.

Fowler is producing for Australia, but we are left to wonder how much better she could be with week in-week out football: How high is her ceiling given that most of a player's development is done at club level?

Gustavsson spoke highly of the Matildas who aren't getting minutes at club level but continue to come into camp and perform at the highest level, Fowler chief among them.

"That also makes me a little bit less concerned [about the lack of minutes] because I know they can still deliver a performance in here," he said after the Olympic qualifier in Melbourne.

"Would I love them to get more minutes? Of course, because that's how players grow and get better.

"Club coaches watch international games and I think a lot of our players with these two performances send some very clear messages back to clubs that, 'I want to play'."

The Fowler problem exists at the opposite end of the spectrum to Foord, who is a constant for Arsenal in every competition.

Foord's importance to the Matildas cannot be overstated, and her chemistry with the likes of club teammates Steph Catley and Kyra Cooney-Cross, as well as her growing understanding with Fowler and the rekindling of her connection with Heyman, make her crucial to Australia.

Which brings us to the woman of the moment.

Heyman returned to the Matildas set-up after a six-year absence, and it couldn't have gone much better.

Weeks after becoming the first A-League Women player to total 100 goals, she scored five times in the two legs vs. Uzbekistan, and made it feel like a revelation, despite her exploits being so well known.

The Canberra United legend's biggest strength is her innate understanding of the striker's role. She knows what is expected, and she's good at it; make the space, aim for the corners where the goalkeeper isn't.

Comparisons to Kerr have followed her through this window, but she is sure of herself and what she brings to the table. '

"It's always a lot of fun to try and be like Sam, but we're very different players. And she's just quality," Heyman said postgame in Melbourne. "I've watched her grow up since she was a 16-year-old kid coming into the league and just destroying everyone. So I aspire to be like her. We're very similar in certain ways, but I play my own game as well.

"I think I can bring some things that are quite different to what Sam brings as well."

Heyman doesn't fully serve the same purpose as Kerr in this Matildas attack, but provides it with a much-needed guidepost.

By occupying the spaces a No. 9 should, and possessing the ability to meet the crosses that will inevitably come during a Matildas game, Heyman gives the Australian forward line structure while allowing those around her to continue to move fluidly in a similar fashion to that seen in the World Cup.

This iteration of the front four passed its first test and showed there is so much potential in the system and the personnel. But Heyman, much like Fowler, is an answer that presents its own questions. Questions that both she and Gustavsson are aware of.

Dominating against Uzbekistan is one thing. But with the current Olympic field containing World Cup winners Spain, continental champions the United States and Brazil, reigning Olympic champions Canada, and perennial threats Germany, Japan, and France, Heyman needs to show she can bring it against even tougher opponents. It's a challenge she not only recognizes but actively wants to tackle.

Time will tell whether this combination of players is right for the Matildas in Paris as they search for that elusive medal, but the mosaic is taking shape.