Australia has secured their place in the semifinals of the Olympic Games by defeating Great Britain.
With a thrilling 4-3 extra-time victory against Great Britain in Kashima, Australia advanced to the semifinals of the Olympic women’s football event at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
In the first half, Alanna Kennedy gave the Matildas the lead, but Team GB took the lead thanks to Ellen White’s second-half double, only for Sam Kerr’s late equalize to take the match to extra time.
After Caroline Weir’s penalty was saved, replacement Mary Fowler and Kerr scored each side of halftime before White completed her hat trick in her team’s late comeback, but it was in vain.
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Not only because they won, but because this is Australia’s most successful Olympics ever.
Tony Gustavsson, the Matildas’ head coach, was often questioned in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics about the many difficulties the Matildas had to face to get here. He was never one to offer excuses, and he never failed to react. He doesn’t want to place too much emphasis on events that are beyond his – and the team’s – control.
As Australia makes Olympic history by qualifying for the semifinals for the first time, it’s important to remember everything this squad has been through over the last 18 months to get to this point.
First and foremost, there is the epidemic. Australia, among all the countries that advanced to the quarterfinals, had the longest gap between national-team matches during the shutdown: 395 days. Many of the players now in the Tokyo squad played in a variety of leagues and cup competitions during that time, from the league and cup competitions of Sam Kerr and co. in England, to the jumbled seasons of Emily Gielnik, Teagan Micah, and Clare Polkinghorne who shuffled between the W-League and Europe, to the injury-plagued campaigns of Steph Catley and Chloe Logarzo.
The Great Britain squad, on the other hand, has had a simpler road to Tokyo, with nearly all of its members being English. While the squad hadn’t been together for nearly as long as Australia (349 days), the overwhelming majority of the players had been building the connections and chemistry that would be required on the field. Indeed, Great Britain lined up against Australia with eight players who all started frequently for Manchester City in the FA Women’s Super League, as well as others who are familiar with each other from Chelsea and Arsenal.
Second, the Matildas’ coaching staff was overhauled. Gustavsson was hired in January but didn’t get the opportunity to see any of his players until April. It’s one thing to work on team chemistry, but it’s quite another to attempt to put down new football systems and ideas through zoom. We witnessed the results of this in Australia’s early friendlies, when they conceded 10 goals in two games while trying to learn and relearn years of footballing lessons in a few of weeks.
Finally, Australia has seemed to be outmatched, at least on paper, versus the teams they have faced in this tournament. The dazzling variety of skill in Sweden’s, the United States’, and the United Kingdom’s teams has rendered Australia the underdog in the majority of their games. Despite this, they’ve found a way to get through them — maybe not with world-beating performances, but with the foresight and management of a squad capable of stepping up when it matters. That was especially true against Great Britain, a squad the Matildas were not expected to equal, much less beat. The squad that has continued to grow into the tournament — and into themselves — has emerged triumphant after 120 grueling, anxious, joyful minutes.
The Matildas have not only made history by reaching the Olympic semifinals for the first time and coming within a whisker of winning their first medal, but they have done it despite everything that has been hurled at them. This has been the most successful Matildas tournament ever, regardless of how far they go from here, and a testimony to a team that continues to live up to the “Never Say Die” slogan imprinted on their green-and-gold jerseys.
Teagan Micah’s heroics in goal helped Australia reach the Olympic semifinals. Getty Images/Atsushi Tomura
Teagan Micah reaches adulthood.
Every football game has a succession of sliding-doors moments, when the game might go in a variety of directions and realities, the sort that make you wonder, “What if?” There were a lot of pivotal moments in Australia’s first-ever match versus Great Britain, but some of the most important occurred in the first half-hour, when both teams were still settling in and attempting to figure each other out.
Teagan Micah, the goalie, please take the field. The 23-year-old has probably benefitted the most from the possibilities that the blank slate has provided as part of the Gustavsson revolution. Micah was keeping Melbourne Victory’s bench warm behind an in-form Casey Dumont two years ago, having returned to the W-League after three years in the US collegiate system. She was also the third-choice goalkeeper for the 2019 Women’s World Cup, however she didn’t play a single minute due to the preference for Australia’s seasoned veteran Lydia Williams.
Tokyo, on the other hand, has been a unique experience. Micah was given her first competitive start against the same opponent in the group stage after a superb performance against Sweden in their 0-0 friendly tie. Despite allowing four goals, she was given another start against the defending world champions, the United States Women’s National Team, against whom she maintained a clean sheet for the second time.
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Gustavsson’s skill and natural shot-stopping talents were on full show in Australia’s encounter against the United Kingdom. She made a crucial low block of a Lauren Hemp volley midway through the half, as well as a fingertip diving stop of a Rachel Daly strike in the 11th minute (which was ultimately called back for offside). While the match fluctuated in terms of control and possession, Micah was able to step up and make crucial stops when her team was under pressure, keeping Australia in the game for the whole first half until Alanna Kennedy’s header put the Matildas ahead in the 34th minute.
Micah’s stop of a possible game-winning penalty from Weir, on the other hand, was crucial. The clinical Manchester City and Scotland midfielder stepped up to the spot, but Micah made a confident diving save to keep the score at 2-2 before young substitute Fowler and a second Kerr header sealed the victory.
Micah’s moment had finally arrived. She had one of her most holistic performances in her national team career to date, reacting to intense moments, nailing the basics, providing passing outlets, and making mature decisions on the ball, in addition to making necessary, high-pressure stops. Micah has worked her way up the pecking order to become a genuine replacement for the once-irreplaceable Williams, with Australia’s original No. 2 Mackenzie Arnold already falling down the pecking order. What’s the best part? It’s only a matter of time before the youngster improves.
For Australia, Sam Kerr put in a captain’s performance. Getty Images/Atsushi Tomura
Gustavsson’s vision is realized by Kerr.
Gustavsson was adamant that Australia’s best goal-scorer in a generation had more value to the team than the number of times she hit the back of the net during the pre-Tokyo friendlies when Matildas captain Kerr was in the midst of her goal drought. Kerr has faced a massive target on her back as a result of her status as one of the game’s most dangerous and visible players. Kerr has been largely marked out of most Tokyo teams, forcing him to find other ways to contribute to the team despite being almost constantly surrounded by defenders.
One of Gustavsson’s constant compliments to Kerr has been along those lines: not so much for her clinical ability in front of goal as for her defensive contributions to the team and her ability to bring players in and around her. Against the United Kingdom, Kerr demonstrated why Gustavsson has such faith in his captain. The rotating centre-back pairing of GB captain Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson, as well as substitute Millie Bright, kept her mostly quiet throughout the match. Despite this, Kerr continued to be influential and dangerous, diving deep to hold and pass the ball to teammates, tracking back to make key tackles and challenges, and, as the clock ticked down, diving deep to use her aerial ability to defend repeated corners and free kicks as GB looked certain to capitalize on their dominance and take the lead.
But, more importantly, Kerr was able to raise her own game to a new level: in addition to doing the “leading from the front” defensive work Gustavsson so frequently praises, Kerr also scored two crucial goals — her second brace of the tournament, bringing her total to five goals and making her Australia’s all-time leading scorer at the Olympics — including a header in extra time to give the Matildas the lead.
After this performance, there can be no doubt that Kerr is the most appropriate captain for this Australian team: a player who embodies the spirit, determination, hard work, and selflessness that this Matildas team — and the very idea of the Matildas — has come to encapsulate for fans around the world.