Biggest challenge facing Matildas as they deal with being an Asian Cup favourite

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Cortnee Vine and Holly McNamara have been added to a final squad of 23, preparations in Dubai have apparently gone well and the Matildas will shortly arrive in India for the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

Much has been made of the indifferent form shown by the team in its most recent performances, with many citing the experimentation and selection criteria employed by coach Tony Gustavsson as potential reasons behind the results.

Those of that school of thought suggest there will be absolutely nothing to worry about when the tournament begins and that there is more to a preparation than results in friendlies in the lead up to it.

While there is certainly some potential logic in such a view, others have serious concerns as to where the team is currently at; many disappointed with the most recent efforts against an understrength United States Women’s National Team and its rather underwhelming overall record under Gustavsson.

Most serious of the concerns is an obvious weakness in defence when some of the best young talent has been given the opportunity to impress and a Matildas team without Alanna Kennedy holding the back four in shape has not looked a comfortable one in recent times.

Gustavsson has experienced options to use in defence, with Clare Polkinghorne and Aivi Luik certain to feature there at some stage of the tournament.

Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter will be automatic selections at left and right back in the knockout phase, yet their legs will not survive a potential six matches in a mere 17 days, with a full squad approach required and certain minutes for Charlotte Grant and Courtney Nevin; players yet to show their best form in national colours.

Things look a little more assured further up the pitch, with young midfielder Clare Wheeler and attacking options McNamara, Remy Siemsen and Vine destined to be well supported up front by experienced campaigners in the shape of Tameka Yallop, Kyah Simon, Hayley Raso, Caitlin Foord and captain Sam Kerr.

However, it is the concession of goals that has many fans of the Matildas concerned and seeing potential knockout matches against China PR, Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Japan, as being somewhat problematic should the defensive lapses continue.

That presents Gustavsson with a challenging quandary and something of a choice between an old guard in desperate need of rejuvenation and a younger yet less proven group of players who do not have the runs on the board in terms of proven success at international level.

Assistant coach Tony Gustavsson of the United States

Tony Gustavsson. Is he the right man for the Matildas? (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

With young stars Kyra Cooney-Cross and Mary Fowler likely to feature in the best eleven, any concerted effort to charge the younger players with the task of winning the key moments and bringing home the Asian Cup, potentially sends a very young team onto the pitch.

Based on what I have seen from the manager thus far, a conservative approach seems more likely. Perhaps a well-balanced blending of the two is the correct course, yet finding that balance will be no easy task and with an acceptable performance in India being no less than an appearance in the final, such decisions are fraught with danger.

Navigating the group phase should be a walk in the park for the Australians and frankly, they will destroy the three teams in their path decisively. Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand should be rounded up easily, before a kind crossover looks likely to present either South Korea or Vietnam as an opponent in the quarter-finals.

So kind has the draw been, a top of the group Matildas will not meet any team to have done the same until the final on February 6th in Navi Mumbai, should they get there. In theory, it points to a saloon path to the final and a match against Japan to decide the AFC title for 2022.

Well, that’s the theory. Reality could well provide something quite different.

With reasonably friendly kick-off times for Australian fans, The Roar will have full coverage of the group matches beginning on Friday, when the Australians enjoy their first hit-out against Indonesia at 9.00pm (AEST).

On Monday the 24th at precisely the same time, Alen Stajcic’s Philippines team will take on the Aussies before a slightly less sleep friendly 1am kick-off against Thailand on January 28 will end the group phase.

I’ll be on air live for the opening two fixtures, with full pre-game and post-game analysis and look forward to your company as the Matildas go in search of another piece of confederation silverware, to add to the trophy cabinet at Football Australia headquarters.

It would look very nice alongside the other two Asian Cup trophies.

Meanwhile, AAP reports Sam Kerr has been beaten to the FIFA Best Women’s Player of the Year award by Barcelona’s Alexia Putellas.

The Matildas captain came second to Putellas with another Spanish midfielder Jenni Hermoso, also of European Champions League winners Barcelona, in third.

Robert Lewandowski, of Bayern Munich and Poland, won the men’s award ahead of Lionel Messi and Mo Salah.

The awards were held in Zurich though most guests appeared by video link. The Australian captain was not on screen as she is preparing for the Matildas’ opening Asian Cup tie in India on Friday.

Kerr surprisingly did not make the FIFPRO Women’s World XI, but neither did Putellas or Hermoso in a very odd selection that did not include any players from either Barcelona or Tokyo Olympics gold medallists Canada.

Kerr’s boss at Chelsea, Emma Hayes, was women’s football manager of the year with Thomas Tuchel, also of Chelsea, taking the men’s award.

International captains, coaches and selected media vote. Kerr herself voted for Putellas, Barcelona and Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen, and Hermoso in the players’ category.

As coach she voted for Hayes, Barcelona’s Lluis Cortes and Bev Priestman of Canada.

Gustavsson, Matildas’ coach, voted for Kerr, Putellas and Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema.

Kerr polled 38 points, 14 behind Putellas, five ahead of Hermoso.

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