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It is difficult to dissect a match in its entirety when the one memory burned into your brain is the sound of cheers each time Iran’s two medical staff ran onto the field to treat a player.
It was that distinctly Australian variety of jaunty sarcasm that usually greets an occurrence perceived to be so absurd that booing will no longer do and dark comedy is the only answer.
Mary Fowler and Samantha Kerr prepare for a corner kick during the Matildas’ Olympic qualifier match against Iran.Credit: Getty Images
Australia’s 2-0 Olympic qualifying win over Iran was a few things. Firstly – and this only comes first because of the aforementioned overriding memory – this was the game of the pantomime roll. Of simulation so blatant that the act of embellishment occasionally did more damage than the incident preceding it.
Exhibit A followed Negin Zandi’s first-half aerial head clash with Clare Polkinghorne. The impact was quite genuine. The pain was probably real. She probably did not relieve the pain by rolling her body a full three rotations in one direction, and then a full three rotations back the other way, and then clutching her head and then remaining face down, kicking one leg into the ground until the referee was forced to stop play and medical staff did their dash.
Those two sets of legs ran out so many times that, by the end of the 90 minutes (and the 11 minutes of second-half stoppage-time to make up for it), there were not enough stretchers in the facility to carry off the wounded who had been mysteriously maimed by phantom opposition.
“It was very frustrating,” said Ellie Carpenter afterwards. “A lot of stop-start and breaking the momentum of play, but I think for us, we stayed focused. We knew what we had to do, we knew it was going to be a game a little bit like this, but I think we stayed very professional and got the job done.”
Negin Zandi of Iran volleys the ball.Credit: Getty Images
A couple of times throughout the match, the broadcast camera cut away to the Matildas bench, showing rugged-up squad members giggling. We will never know if the two incidents are directly linked.
What we do know is that there was a lot of simulation, that part of it was probably tactical and part of it was more a sign that Iran’s players were simply exhausted trying to contain a nation 52 places higher in the FIFA rankings and with far more high-quality experience under their belts.
By the end they were utterly spent, half the squad dropping to the turf as soon as the full-time whistle sounded. But they had kept the World Cup semi-finalists to only two goals using a low defensive block which largely achieved what it set out to do.
Which brings us to the next point, which is how the Matildas dealt with 10 players behind the ball, when they had 80 per cent possession and 25 shots to two. This was a game in which 20 goals beckoned, and a game in which two were scored.
The Matildas celebrate Ellie Carpenter’s 19th-minute goal.Credit: Getty Images
“I do think we were rusty tonight,” said coach Tony Gustavsson. “There’s some touches, some chemistry if you look at conversion rate as well. Normally the conversion rate is much better in terms of those chances that we have. And I think that’s due to the lack of preparation time and the travel, the little timing on that last touch.”
The first goal came from Carpenter, who spent her night cutting inside and scored on 19 minutes off the back of a Cortnee Vine speed special. The second arrived at 78 minutes and was the combined work of three substitutes: Steph Catley starting a one-two with Fowler, and then receiving Fowler’s threaded ball through two defenders and whipped a cross to the back post for a one-time Sam Kerr finish.
The trio had been introduced together and aptly made their mark together. They were three of several big stars left on the bench for this opening match, as had been foreshadowed by Gustavsson. In keeping with his promise, he rotated his starting line-up heavily from his preferred World Cup XI, giving game time to those who got little to none during the tournament.
Of them, Clare Wheeler was a clear standout. Gustavsson literally called the Everton midfielder “outstanding”, and one mazy solo run almost ended in a solo goal had her shot not flashed just wide of the far post. The same can be said for Amy Sayer, who marginally missed out on the World Cup’s final 23 and will make selection life even more difficult from here on in.
So what did we learn? That Australia still loves the Matildas as much as they did at the World Cup. That 18,798 people were at Perth’s HBF Park on Thursday night, basking in the glow they still give the nation. That the cheers accompanying Kerr’s warm-up drills show dynamic stretching can be pretty inspirational. That the Matildas are still working out how to get past a parked bus. That Gustavsson has “mixed feelings” about this performance, but that they have shaken out the proverbial in time for a sterner test against the Philippines on Sunday. And that Kerr and company will probably start that one.
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