When Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson was asked how he plans to utilise his star striker and national team captain Sam Kerr across three Olympic qualifiers in Perth, a rival coach leant forward with intent.
Philippines boss Mark Torcaso was sat next to Gustavsson on the four-person panel of head coaches in charge of the respective nations set to go toe-to-toe in the round-robin international event in Western Australia; his Filipinas take on the Matildas in front of a sellout crowd at Optus Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
“Please tell me, Tony, what your plans are for Sam Kerr,” said Torcaso, shooting a smile towards his coaching counterpart.
“Well, I’m not going to play her centre-back!” Gustavsson replied.
Kerr touched down in Perth on Tuesday afternoon, ahead of Australia’s three Olympic qualifiers against Iran (October 26), the Philippines (October 29) and Chinese Taipei (November 1). Kerr hasn’t played in front of her home fans in the four years since her departure from Liberty A-League club Perth Glory to English giants Chelsea at the end of 2019.
But a calf injury suffered on the day before the 2023 Women’s World Cup has prevented the Matildas captain putting together consistent match minutes and appearances for either the national team or her club side in the Women’s Super League.
As a result, Gustavsson admits her minutes will be restricted across the three qualifying fixtures in Perth.
“I think all of us would love to play Sam Kerr for 90 minutes every game,” he said.
“She would love to play in front of friends and family and say thank you for everything. I would love to play (her) for 90 minutes, and everyone watching the game would love to see 90 minutes.
“But we also need to look at it (like this): we always want to have a healthy high-performance culture here, a player-centric approach, considering she’s coming back from injury and she hasn’t played 90 minutes in a very, very long time, not for club either with that calf issue coming back, we will need to be extremely mindful.
“As I did in the World Cup I’m going to go (by the) recommendation with my SSSM team (Sports Science Sports Medicine) that are experts in this field, and they work very, very closely with Chelsea as well… we all want Sam to be in form and play as many minutes as possible for both club and country.”
“I think we can expect to see some rotation in this tournament, so we don’t overload her with minutes,” he sadded.
“Then it’s up to me to know when I get maximum out of those minutes she has. Is it starting and taking her off? Or having her on the bench and (putting) her on? How do I plan those three games over time?”
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The Matildas take on Iran at HBF Park on Thursday night, before a clash with the Philippines at Optus Stadum on Sunday afternoon, followed by a return to HBF Park on November 1. All three games are sellouts, meaning a total of 100,000 fans will come through the gates to see their national team in action.
The rapid increase in Matildas interest around the country is a result of a phenomenal home World Cup campaign in which Gustavsson’s side finished fourth and reached the semi-finals.
Australia’s superb performance at the tournament has led to Gustavsson’s name being linked to the top job with the United States Women’s National Team, following the resignation of Vlatko Andonovski after a disastrous World Cup campaign that ended in Round of 16 defeat to Sweden.
Gustavsson worked under Jill Ellis in the United States’ World Cup triumphs in 2015 and 2019, with the legendary coach being one of the loudest voices calling for the Swede to take the top job with the international powerhouse.
On the eve of his side’s Olympic qualifiers in Perth, Gustavsson committed his short-term future to the green and gold – but appreciated hearing his name in discussions for “one of the biggest jobs in the world.”
“I love working with this team,” he said. “I have one year left on my contract, and all coaches know we’re never better than our last game. If we underperform at this tournament all of a sudden I’m probably a very bad coach, and not many people are going to talk about it.
I’m just proud to be talked about for a job like that. It’s one of the biggest jobs in the world, in terms of the finance and the interest, and all that. But this for me is also the biggest job in the world, working with this team.
“What we did in the World Cup was not the end of something, it was the start of something. But I was clear then and I want to be clear now: I want to see investment. For me to be motivated to stay, we can’t be complacent and think: ‘We’re done now’. This is the start and the platform, and now I want to see investment.”
Australia v Iran
Date: Thursday, 26 October 2023
Kick-off: 7pm AWST / 10pm AEDT
Venue: HBF Park, Perth
Philippines v Australia
Date: Sunday, 29 October 2023
Kick-off: 3pm AWST / 6pm AEDT
Venue: Optus Stadium, Perth
Australia v Chinese Taipei
Date: Wednesday, 1 November 2023
Kick-off: 7pm AWST / 10pm AEDT
Venue: HBF Park, Perth