Australia’s national women’s team is finally back in action on home soil this week, with strong crowds expected to turn out in Penrith and Newcastle for a set of two friendlies against Chile on Nov. 10 and 13.
With the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France now just seven months away, the 20 players selected in Australia’s squad have the perfect chance to press their claim for World Cup selection in front of head coach Alen Stajcic.
With the core of his experienced national team veterans back on the park, competition for spots is fierce and Stajcic insists the door remains wide open for others to force their way into contention.
ESPN caught up with the Matildas boss, who was adamant that while the upcoming friendlies were important, they by no means represent the last chance for players to secure a ticket to France.
“These are the last matches we have before the final rankings come out [ahead of the World Cup draw] and a couple of wins would cement us as a seeded team,” Stajcic said.
The final squad however, is far from finalised.
“It’s the reverse actually,” he continued. “Every match now is for World Cup selection, whether it’s the W-League, club games overseas or these matches against Chile.
“I’ve seen a lot of these players in action since the start of the W-League so it’s important that we keep an open mind and start with a blank page to look at those that impress and see how they can fit into our team.
“While this current squad have more opportunity to do that, every player has the chance whenever they are on the pitch, to showcase their level and their value in their team.”
The Matildas have had an inconsistent year with key players troubled by injury, from the Algarve Cup through to the Asian Cup, the Tournament of Nations and into the European tour. Stajcic sees the matches against Chile as the ideal chance to focus on finding fluency and work on lessons learned from those past appearances.
“They [Chile] have really progressed. They’ve been a fairly strong team for a while now and hosted the Copa America this year where they qualified for the World Cup in front of a home crowd,” he said.
“Their players have good technique and creativity as well as quality on the ball. The closest we get to experiencing that style of play is probably Japan. Besides Brazil we don’t face South American teams regularly, so this is a great challenge.
“[Against France and Germany] we were poor in possession, not enough attention to controlling the game and not enough care in keeping the ball.
“That’s something we have been able to do in the last three to four years — control the momentum of the game, and when we lost control of possession in those matches, it meant a tougher time on and off the ball with more defending required in crucial parts of the field.”
Despite the results, he was heartened by the resilience shown by the Matildas.
“Some of our players had been out of season for six or seven weeks and they all played with heart, spirit and courage,” Stajcic said.
“Even with those difficulties, they were able to stay close to what are two quality teams and that shows how resilient this side is, to be able to be in that ballpark.”
Matildas regulars Sam Kerr, Emily van Egmond and Katrina Gorry are back in the squad after missing the October friendlies along with Alanna Kennedy and Michelle Heyman, who are both on the road back to full fitness after recent surgery.
“Alanna [Kennedy] may not see any game time yet, and Michelle [Heyman] has only been back for around four weeks but we want to keep them familiar with our playing style,” Stajcic said.
“Michelle has been an important member of the team in the past and this gives her a chance to showcase her skills and cement a spot.”
Forward Kyah Simon, defender Stephanie Catley and speedy winger Hayley Raso remain on the injury list while uncapped youngster Mary Fowler was withdrawn from the squad by her father to stay in England where she is training with a sprint coach who also worked with Cristiano Ronaldo.
The 15-year-old is undoubtedly a star of the future and, with dual nationality, will remain a target for her father’s native Ireland unless she earns a cap for the senior Australian national side. Stajcic was disappointed Fowler was not made available after selecting her for the upcoming matches but says the “door remains open” and offered his full support for her ongoing progress.
However time is of the essence and right now Stajcic’s focus is on the 20 players he has at hand for the task ahead.
“The more depth, the more competition, the more flexibility, the more versatility we have in this team, the greater chance we have of being successful for a longer time,” he said on announcement of his latest squad.
And with kick-off against Chile not far away, he made it clear to ESPN that despite the challenges of the past year, Australia is looking to dominate and create momentum heading into the World Cup.
“Winning is always important to us,” he said. “Gaining fluency is very crucial for this squad, we pride ourselves on good performances and winning matches.”