Three years on from Tony Gustavsson’s arrival, the Matildas arrived at what the head coach described as a crossroads moment.
Taking on the Philippines at home in a must-win Olympic qualifier, the expectations lifted for the heavily fancied Matildas. It was the sort of occasion in which the national team may have faltered in years gone by, toiling to break down a lower-ranked nation.
But on this occasion, with a near-60,000 crowd on hand anticipating a convincing display from their national heroes, what the Matildas produced gave Gustavsson a look at what he’s been challenging his team to produce since his instalment at the helm: a near-perfect display from start to finish, leaving the Philippines without a sniff of a result in an 8-0 rout.
It’s what Gustavsson believes is the missing piece. The quality that can turn Australia into one of the best national teams in the world on a consistent basis.
He used that fact as a piece of pre-game motivation – and his players responded in kind, with hat-tricks to Caitlin Foord and Sam Kerr setting Australia on course to notch one of the more emphatic results in Gustavsson’s tenure.
“When I arrived here three years ago, a lot of people said this team can’t play as favourites,” he said post-game. “(That) they need to be underdogs to perform, and this team cannot break down parked buses when there is no space behind the backline, and not play the running game. We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time trying to develop that.”
“I think it was a bit of a crossroads moment for this team, to be honest, in terms of what we want to be about now.
“We want to be a top team in the world and be able to play as the favourite against (a team that) parks the bus. We proved today we have taken massive steps.
“The combination play you saw today, attacking-wise it’s the best (we have) played – at least in my time with the team.
“You can say: ‘Well, it’s a lower-ranked team’ – it doesn’t matter about the team… this is one of the best combination plays we’ve seen this team play as long as I’ve been here.”
The Matildas front four of Kerr, Foord, Mary Fowler and Hayley Raso wreaked havoc in a frightening performance in the final third; Fowler bagged the opening goal to add to both Kerr and Foord’s hat-ricks with midfielder Clare Wheeler adding the eighth – her first senior international goal – on an afternoon of overwhelming dominance by the Matildas.
The second of Australia’s three qualifiers taking place in Perth in this international window was played in front of 59,155 fans at Optus Stadium – the largest home crowd for an Australian women’s sporting game, in any sport, outside of an Olympics or the 2023 World Cup.
MATILDAS v IRAN: ‘I really love her’: Coach’s beautiful Sam Kerr tribute after Matildas defeat
SAM KERR FOOTBALL CENTRE: New state-of-the-art Football Centre renamed in honour of Sam Kerr
MATILDAS 2-0 IRAN: Hero’s welcome for Kerr in Perth as Matildas’ new era begins with glimpse into bright future
Gustavsson waxed lyrical about Fowler’s effectiveness as a winger after she came off the bench for an eye-catching substitute’s cameo against Iran; against the Philippines she was played from the start, deployed off the left with Foord supporting Sam Kerr down the middle.
Fowler has been in flying form at Manchester City playing on the wing, and her club form has flowed seamlessly into Matildas duty. The 20-year-old dominated the first half, scoring the opening goal in the 15th minute with a first-time finish off the post and in; the move flowed through Sam Kerr and Ellie Carpenter down the right, with Caitlin Foord’s fluffed attempt falling to Fowler to strike.
It was the moment that kick-started a first-half procession, with the front four combining to devastating effect in a fluid showing from the home side in Perth.
Kerr made it 2-0 just nine minutes later with a cool finish from close range – but the plaudits belonged to Foord for her work down the wing to create Australia’s second. Foord was hugging the touchline as both Reina Bonta and Dominique Randle closed in – but she breezed past the latter to find Kerr with a cut-back from the byline.
Then came a pair of quick-fire Foord goals on the half-hour mark.
The first was made easy by a classy combination between Fowler who crossed off the left, and Kerr who controlled the ball deftly into Foord’s path to score. The second was crafted by Raso, whose through pass split the Philippines’ defence and gave Olivia McDaniel no chance of a save against the Arsenal spearhead.
Foord spoke post-game of the challenge set to the players before kick-off by Gustavsson to relish their favouritism against the Philippines.
“Before Tony came in, we said to him where we think we struggled as a team – and that was playing against lower-ranked teams. We just felt like we couldn’t step up,” he said.
“His (pre-game) message was relaying that, reminding us that and that today was an opportunity to change that mindset of the team. We went out there and we did want to prove that and show that.
“We have set a benchmark and a level now of what Australia expects us to play at, and we have to live up to that now.”
Kerr’s hat-trick was secured with one goal scored just moments before the half-time whistle, and another 25 seconds after the restart of the second stanza.
Her second was rifled into the roof of the net after a stellar Foord assist; she had rolled her marker in midfield before playing Kerr in on goal. The hat-trick finish came via a header off Fowler’s sublime cross whipped off the left wing.
Kerr, Fowler and Foord continued to run amok at Optus Stadium as Kerr’s hat-trick goal made it 6-0 to the hosts just seconds into the second half.
After watching her captain score three, Foord decided she too wanted a piece of the action with a third of her own – and her hat-trick goal was arguably the pick of the eight scored by the hosts.
Foord wriggled through bodies toward the byline, cut onto her favoured right foot and, from the tightest of angles, her venomous strike rifled into the top-right corner to make it seven.
Then came a popular moment in the stadium as second-half substitute Clare Wheeler emerged from the bench to score the Matildas’ eighth and final goal. Wheeler had never scored an international goal – and her first was a beauty, set up by Foord on the edge of the box and rifled into the back of the net, beyond the outstretched glove of McDaniel.
Soon after Australia’s eighth, the 59,155 crowd figure was confirmed, eclipsing Optus Stadium’s previous football attendance record of 56,371 set in 2019 at the Isuzu UTE A-League Grand Final between Perth Glory and Sydney FC. No sporting match of any code in the history of women’s sport in Australia has drawn a larger crowd than the one that flocked to Optus Stadium on Sunday.
The comprehensive victory took the Matildas to the top of Group A in Asian Football Confederation qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
The Perth series wraps up at HBF Park on Wednesday, November 1 against Chinese Taipei; Australia’s next opponent sits on one point in qualifying after a 0-0 draw with Iran on Sunday night, played at Optus Stadium in the aftermath of Australia’s 8-0 win over the Philippines.
Australia v Chinese Taipei
Date: Wednesday, 1 November 2023
Kick-off: 7pm AWST / 10pm AEDT
Venue: HBF Park, Perth