It’s the moment we have all been waiting for; will the Matildas qualify for the Olympics in Brazil?
In a tournament that will throw up plenty of challenges, the biggest one is first. Japan.
“We are really looking forward to the game,” said Matildas’ head coach Alen Stajcic. “We have a great respect for Japan but we are ready for the challenge.”
It is a match up between the two biggest rivals within the Asian confederation. They have played against each other in Asian Cup finals and World Cup quarter-finals but for both teams it is a chance to pick up vital points. Despite being the less fancied team, it won’t be a cowed Australia entering this match.
“At the Asian Cup in 2014, we saw that when we played well, took a positive approach and didn’t fear playing them, we could take the game to them.”
“We are going to go out and try and win this game and take a positive approach and a positive mentality into the game.”
The message from Australia’s co-captain Clare Polkinghorne is that they are ready. It is one echoed by Stajcic following a week’s acclimatisation in Nara.
“The squad is looking really good,” he said.
“They look really sharp, focused and definitely switched onto the job at hand.”
The bad news for Australia is the late loss of the experienced Aivi Luik with a quad strain. With the heavy schedule about to be undertaken, the precautionary step has been taken to replace her with Ellie Carpenter coming in for her first tournament and possibly Matildas debut.
“We just couldn’t take a risk,” said Stajcic. “If it was a one-off match we could but in this tournament, where we have only got 17 field players, we just couldn’t afford to take the risk.”
15 year old Carpenter, who travelled with the team to Japan as an alternate, will now step into the squad. Carpenter was one of the revelations of the recent W-League tournament with the defender’s pace, dribbling and awareness giving an opportunity at camp and ultimately seeing her on the plan to Osaka.
“Ellie certainly can play in a variety of positions across the defence and probably gives us a little more variety, especially at that left and right back where we need some cover.”
Australia and Japan have a long history in women’s football but this might be one of the biggest to date. The Matildas have not made an Olympic tournament since Athens 2004, while Japan were runners up to the United States in London 2012.
However, the recent form of each side tells a different story. Japan has only had one win in their past five, which was against China in the EAFF East Asian Women’s Cup. Japan only secured three points and finished behind Korea DPR and Korea Republic. Meanwhile, the Matildas have grown as a group, securing two wins and a draw in their past five.
Previous encounters between the two sides have seen Japan successful in five out of the eight played. The Matildas have conceded 13 goals and only scored six. The odds do not seem in favour of the green and gold.
The last time they met was in the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Cup in Canada where Mana Iwabuchi scored a goal in the 87 minute to end Australia’s fairy tale run.
At the end of a bruising campaign, the Matildas showed character and battled hard to try to continue their history makingrun in the competition but it wasn’t to be.
Australia’s Player to watch: Clare Polkinghorne
Clare Polkinghorne is a veteran defender and co-captain of the Matildas with 80 appearances in her 10 years in the green and gold.
Despite missing last year’s World Cup in Canada to injury, the Brisbane Roar defender had an unbelievable W-League season in the backline. She played every minute with the Brisbane Roar and was one of the best defenders of the season.
Although she did not play the last time Japan and Australia met, she might be the secret weapon Stajcic needed that fateful day. Her calm composure and pin-point timing in defence is what has made it so hard for defenders to find a way past her.
Japan’s Player to watch: Aya Miyama
Not only is she humble and caring but also she might be one of the greatest players to grace a football pitch.
Aya Miyama is the current captain of Japan along with the current AFC Women’s Player of the Year and with 156 appearances plus 38 goals to her name, she has sure made a name for herself in the game.
Her ability to read the game means that she dominates the left flank and drifts into the middle of the pitch with speed and ease. Her brilliance can be hard to spot at times but she is the one the Matilda’s must watch closely.
What to expect?
Japan is a possession-based side with a high pressing forward pack and not to mention their perfectly placed set pieces, which will put pressure on the Matildas’ defence.
The main concern for the Matildas is being on the back foot after losing possession and effectively being out of position on the transition. In the previous match between the two, the majority of Japan’s attack came from this type of play.
“We have certainly tidied up a few areas of our defence strategy that we employed in the World Cup. We will certainly be more proactive and aggressive with our defence.”
Japan’s high pressing game is a result of this. They apply significant pressure on the midfield and defence with Nadeshiko capitalising on the mistakes.
“We are not going to sit back and let them dictate the game”
In saying that, Australia’s game is not without its danger for Japan. Australia too has the ability to rapidly transition from defence to attack. The pace on the flanks in particular could be an advantage as well with the quick ball movement of Gorry and Van Egmond.
For all Japan’s midfield dominance in matches, Australia has arguably the better and more varied options going forward with goals available from the midfield as well as an array of attackers.
Expect a high intensity match between the two sides as they battle it out for a place in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Australia v Japan
Monday 29 February 2016
Kincho Stadium, Osaka
Kick-Off: 7:35pm local time (9:35pm AEDT)
LIVE nationally 9:30pm AEDT on 7mate and streaming online on Plus7