One arduous hour, then a moment of pure brilliance from Australia’s emerging superstar; a Mary Fowler wonder-strike turned a frustrating night for the Matildas on its head, sparking a 3-0 win over Chinese Taipei at HBF Park on Wednesday night.
The home side toiled for 62 minutes against Chinese Taipei’s compact defensive block before Fowler burst open the floodgates with a swerving shot from distance that electrified the 19,084 fans in the stands in Perth.
Goals to Sam Kerr and Tameka Yallop were soon to follow as the CommBank Matildas wrapped up all three points and a perfect Olympic qualification series, with Kerr scoring the 900th goal in the history of the Australian women’s national team to end her homecoming trip to Perth on a high note.
Victory over Chinese Taipei followed wins over Iran and the Philippines in the Perth series, to send Australia through to the final phase of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifying for the 2024 Paris Games as the highest finisher in Group A.
The Matildas will play Uzbekistan in a two-legged playoff for a spot at the 2024 Olympics, with the first leg away on February 24 and the return leg in Australia on February 28.
Uzbekistan progressed as the highest second-place finisher out of three qualifying groups, along with Australia, Japan and North Korea who topped the three groups.
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After defeating Chinese Taipei and securing a path to the final phase of qualifying, Matildas boss Tony Gustavsson conceded it would be hard for new players to break into the squad between now and the Uzbekistan playoffs – and the Olympic squad, should Australia qualify – due to the current squad’s form.
“I’m happy with the development of players and the development of the team,” he said.
“But I’m not happy when I think about announcing the roster for the Olympics – because that’s going to be very tough. But let’s focus on one step at a time: we’re not there yet. We have qualifiers in February, that’s what we want to focus on.
“At the same time, considering the way the team is performing right now, it’s going to be a very small chance to break into this team for people outside trying to come in. That doesn’t mean you can’t come in – but it’s going to be difficult because we’re performing very well.
“We have more than the numbers that are going to be in an Olympic roster competing for spots already in camp. It’s going to be tough, tough competition.”
The Matildas’ 3-0 win over Chinese Taipei was by no means an easy feat, with the determined visitors showing a stoic defensive spirit to frustrate Gustavsson’s side.
Within minutes of kick-off came a nearly moment for Sam Kerr; the fans had barely settled in their seats when they were jolted upright by her pirouette on the edge of the area that left a pair of Chinese Taipei defenders all at sea. But Kerr wore a grimace as her second touch escaped her clutches and the keeper scrambled to collect.
Mary Fowler’s move from the centre of the park to the wing has been the revelation of this qualification series, and her vibrant form carried over from the Philippines’ rout in the early stages of the first half.
Time and again the ball found its way to her feet on the left, from which point Fowler would get to work. Her pass to the feet of Kerr on the edge of the area sparked another chance, with a first-time touch feeding Katrina Gorry to fire a shot on target, saved comfortably by Cheng Ssu-yu.
Then came a corner in the 13th minute that led to a venomous Fowler half-volley, struck off Ssu-yu’s attempted punch clearance, that rattled the meeting point between crossbar and post, repelling across the goal line and, somehow, past the opposite upright.
Chinese Taipei were living dangerously and the Matildas pressure was not about to relent, but opportunities were repeatedly spurned by the home side. the Chinese Taipei defensive guard was resolute, with Ssu-Yu standing tall to deal with cross after cross. Fowler missed chances from close and long range, and Kerr’s patented leap was missing its spring in a series of crossing situations.
The first half went by with all of the attacking endeavour of the 8-0 win over the Philippines, but none of the cutting edge. Chinese Taipei were robust, organised and determined. The Matildas, creative yet wasteful. Australia had 17 first-half shots, with just four directed on target.
Half-time brought on a pair of Matildas changes, with Western Australian-born goalkeeper Lydia Williams replacing Mackenzie Arnold for her first minutes of the qualifiers. Charlotte Grant was introduced in place of Clare Wheeler, a midfielder deployed at right-back throughout the opening 45.
Two minutes after the restart Kerr was played over the top of Chinese Taipei’s defence by Kyra Cooney-Cross. Unmarked and tearing toward goal, Kerr lost control of the ball, watching it bounce off her shin and out of reach.
A frustrating start to the second half that started the same way the first had ended.
When Caitlin Foord attempted the audacious with a narrow-angled shot saved easily just prior to the hour mark, it seemed Chinese Taipei’s disciplined rearguard might prove stubborn enough to last the 90 – until Fowler looked up with the ball at her feet and thought: not a chance.
She unleashed from distance in the 62nd minute, cutting across her strike to send it whipping toward the right of the target. A similar strike in the first half fizzed over the bar – but this one was a peach. It rattled into the top-right corner, releasing the pressure valve and, at last, breaking Chinese Taipei’s resolve.
A quick-fire second put the result beyond doubt.
It was an unfortunate moment for Zhuo Li-ping, who had set the tone for the best of Chinese Taipei’s defensive efforts up until a loose touch off a Foord cut-back that allowed Kerr to swoop on the easiest of finishes.
Off came Kerr as Gustavsson rang the changes, comforted by that two-goal lead.
Brisbane Roar forward Tameka Yallop was her replacement in the line-up – and it was her goal in the 76th minute that made it three.
Fowler had shifted to the right wing, allowing Foord to return to the left where she’s so often been at her best for the Matildas – and her work with back to goal in the box was the catalyst for the third, as she turned her defender and poked a shot just wide the bottom-right corner that was pounced on by Amy Sayer for the cut-back to Yallop alone in the goal mouth.
The Matildas looked poised to score a flurry of late goals, but couldn’t add to the three scored within 14 second-half minutes. The 3-0 result ensured Australia navigated through the qualification group earning nine points, scoring 13 goals and conceding zero.
A two-legged playoff against Uzbekistan for a spot at the 2024 Olympic Games awaits for Gustavsson’s side.