Australia's Dark Horses: A Guide to the Matildas
Friday, 7 April 2023
Ben Gilby gives us a run down on Australia's key players as they gear up to face the Lionesses
The World Cup co-hosts Australia are in town and are prepared to take on the European champions. Whilst WSL fans are familiar with the large number of Matildas playing their club football here or in France, Tony Gustavsson’s side boast a number of other players that are more than capable of posing a real threat to the Lionesses.
Alanna Kennedy’s absence is notable, but in truth the Manchester City defender has not played much international football over the last eight months. Of more concern for this international window at least is the hamstring injury that Caitlin Foord picked up in Arsenal’s win over Manchester City on Sunday.
However, whilst under previous head coaches injuries to established players meant a succession of squad members being forced into makeshift roles in unfamiliar parts of the pitch, Tony Gustavsson has spent the three years of his tenure blooding a succession of the country’s young talent. Young talent that have shown they are capable of producing excellent performances on the international stage, with the Matildas winning their last five matches – a run which includes comfortable victories over Sweden and Spain.
Indeed, Foord’s withdrawal means that there is the opportunity for two of the A-League Women’s hottest young attacking talent to show a British audience just how good they are.
Holly McNamara turned 20 in January and holds three international caps already. In her breakout campaign of 2021/22, the young star proved to be the perfect foil for Kiwi Hannah Wilkinson in the Melbourne City side with the pair scoring goals for fun. McNamara’s pace and creativity out wide earned her a call up for the Australian side that went to the 2022 Asian Cup (the continent’s version of the Euros). McNamara was one of the few positives in what was a disappointing competition for the Matildas that saw them exit at the quarter-final stage in India.
Then, just as quickly as McNamara’s star ascended, it was all taken away as soon after getting back to the A-League Women, she suffered a heart breaking ACL injury. Just a month into her return to action, the youngster is, incredibly, back to her marauding best, and produced a dominant performance last weekend in City’s 3-3 draw with Canberra United that clinched their place in the A-League Women’s Finals once more.
*Holly McNamara has withdrawn from the Matildas squad following their match against Scotland.
Cortnee Vine is in the form of her life, and is overdue a move to Europe, where she would be a potential star in the WSL. The 24-year-old Sydney FC striker has it all – pace, strength, creativity, and red hot finishing skills.Vine is a player who mixes the old fashioned out and out wing play with the quality to finish from all over the front line. Whether it is using her speed to eat up the yards on the right hand side, dancing past would-be tacklers to provide pinpoint passes into the box, or cutting into the middle to draw a goalkeeper and slot calmly and confidently into the net, she is a player who, whilst has never played club football outside of Australia, has taken to the international stage superbly with three goals already.
It’s not just up front where Australia have real options. They also boast one of the most creative midfields in the game.
Katrina Gorry, 30, returned to the game just over 12 months ago after giving birth to baby Harper in 2021. The star, known as ‘Mini’, due to her diminutive size (a touch over 5 ft) has not only taken the club game by the scruff of the neck since returning at both Brisbane Roar and Vittsjö, but has also produced a number of influential performances back in the green and gold of Australia. The 91 cap midfielder can thread a pass through the eye of a needle, or hit a stunner of a long range free-kick. The Lionesses have been warned – give away a set-piece around the box and Gorry will be ready.
At 24 years-old, Alex Chidiac is at the peak of her powers. Now back in the NWSL at Racing Louisville after playing three-quarters of the A-League Women campaign for Melbourne Victory, Chidiac is the ultimate creative midfielder. Whether it is finding her wide players with inch perfect lofted passes, using her pace to drive through the centre before offloading to a team mate, Chidiac has the sort of creative brain that any international head coach desperately wants. The New South Wales born player can read the potential runs those ahead of her will make before they embark on them, and supplies on the money passes with her eyes closed. Chidiac is a player that the footballing purist will love. She has the potential to be a major star at the World Cup.
For a while Australia’s options at the back have been limited. It’s still fair to say that it still doesn’t quite match the pool that they have further forward, but over the past 18 months of so, the emergence of Charli Grant, and this season, Clare Hunt, has helped to erase some of Tony Gustavsson’s potential headaches.
The loss of Ellie Carpenter with an ACL injury during last season’s UEFA Champions League Final could have been catastrophic for the Matildas, yet a few months earlier, another right-back had been called into the national team for the first time,
The South Australian had a record as arguably the best young defender in what was then the W-League with Adelaide United, and it earned her a shot at Champions League football with Swedish champions FC Rosengård. Grant was long admired for her potential among the Australian women’s football family. She took her chance with both hands in Carpenter’s absence as she drove her game to new heights.
Grant bosses the right hand side of the defence and is capable of tracking two players at once before using her outstanding ability to read the game to make the right call time after time to close down danger before it eventuates. Whilst not in possession of the rapid pace to get forward that Carpenter does, Grant offers more than the Lyon player in terms of defensive qualities. Her ability to also play left back for her loan side Vittsjö in Sweden means that it is perfectly possible that Gustavsson can field both Carpenter and Grant in the same team. That would be one heck of a defensive duo.
Clare Hunt has been impressive in defence for a struggling Western Sydney Wanderers side for several seasons now. After suffering a devastating injury last season, Hunt returned for the new A-League Women season as the Wanderers captain and was in stellar form once more. Regularly watched by Gustavsson and his coaching staff in the early part of the season, Hunt was rewarded with her first senior international call up in February and looked as if she had played in the green and gold backline all her life as she produced a series of performances of idiosyncratic ballast at the back as Australia defeated Spain, Jamaica and the Czech Republic comfortably. The Lionesses will cause Hunt more of a threat, and it will be fascinating to see how she handles them.
England fans will be confident of overturning Australia at Brentford. Whilst they may be missing Foord, there is more than enough quality in this Matildas side to give the Lionesses a far tougher test than many will expect. Their trademark mantra is not ‘Never Say Die’ for nothing. Just remember that showdown in the Olympic Games Quarter-Finals.