Alea iacta est. So the histories report Caesar uttered as he crossed the Rubicon, risking all on the hopes of a dream. After days of furore following Australia’s shock loss to a vastly improved Italy – and the acrimony of a reheated saga from months past – suddenly for the Matildas in France the stakes have never been higher.
In his pre-match presser the usually softly-spoken Ante Milicic bared his teeth. Two seemingly inoffensive questions received short shrift. The issue was not the enquiries themselves, but the perceived underlying agenda from certain media outlets. The coach felt his players had been unfairly treated and the wagons were circled.
Yet Socceroos coach Graham Arnold arrived in Montpellier to support the women’s team and offered a counterpoint to the atmosphere of a team under siege.
“Japan drew against Argentina 0-0. The Dutch just beat New Zealand in the 95th minute, 1-0. These things happen in football,” Arnold said. “We lost in the 95th. We could have a completely different story here today if it stayed 1-1. I was there with them yesterday at training. If I had a training session like that two days before a game, with the energy that those girls had, I’d be delighted today.”
And yet the overarching narrative of the Matildas’ 2019 campaign very much hinges on what takes place on Thursday night in Montpellier. Defeat to Brazil and one of Australia’s finest crops of players and the world’s No 6 side are staring at group stage elimination. Win, and the Milicic revolution has space to breathe fresh impetus into the campaign.
FFA top brass rolled the dice when they sacked Alen Stajcic months out from a World Cup campaign. The wisdom of their decision, in the eyes of many, will be confirmed solely through performances on the pitch.
It’s arguably one of the Matildas’ most important games ever – and the subplots are plentiful. One major question is who will start at left-back. With Clare Polkinghorne reporting muscle tightness following the match against Italy, and Laura Alleway withdrawn from the squad, the Matildas are down to one recognised fully-fit centre-back.
It’s a nightmarish scenario with roots deep in the underinvestment in women’s football below the elite level and a lack of competitive opportunity outside the W-League. For a nation with a seeming production line of no-nonsense centre-backs, all of a sudden there is no one to fit the bill.
Veteran former captain Polkinghorne trained separately from the group on Wednesday, walking laps before testing her hamstring with some medium-pace sprints. It’s a sore point for coach Milicic, who claimed Polkinghorne had to perform over 300m of unnecessary high-velocity sprints during the match due to Fifa rule changes that encourage linesmen to keep their flags down, following the introduction of VAR at this World Cup.
Should Polkinghorne not be fit, vice-captain Steph Catley is the likely replacement in the heart of defence. As Australia’s pre-eminent left-back for the past six years, it creates a lottery as to who comes in at full-back. Gema Simon, utility Amy Harrison, or even youngster Karly Roestbakken could all be in the frame.
Milicic hinted at changes to personnel to best counter Brazil’s attacking threats, which almost certainly points to a return of Elise Kellond-Knight into the Matildas’ engine room. With Brazil’s coach Vadão employing a 4-4-2 there are pockets of space to exploit in front of the defence – an area Milicic has experimented with, with Caitlin Foord fulfilling the role of playmaker.
“I feel with Kellond-Knight coming back into the squad that’s very important for us because she’s a real natural No 6 and a lot of the good play that we do have, or we’ve had in the past anyway, goes through her.”
Once again Milicic confirmed his commitment to an attacking style of football, even though the attacking personnel of Brazil makes this a high-risk strategy.
“We understand they want to use their individual skills, they like to play when the game is stretched,” Milicic said. “They are strong in transition … so what’s important for us against an opposition like them, is that we really keep to our shape and we keep our structure really well and with discipline. We don’t want an end-to-end game, an open game.”
As Catley confirmed, with the mooted return of six-times world player of the year, Marta, to bolster the Brazilian attack already including hat-trick star Cristiane who spearheaded the win over Jamaica, Australia’s historical rivals are set to only be more formidable.
“I’ve played against Marta a lot, I’ve played with her, so I suppose I know how she plays a little better than I know Cristiane,” Catley said. “Both are players individually full of flair and skill, they can turn it on at any point, so [it is important] just being switched on at all times during an entire game.”
It has been over a decade since the Matildas lost four games in a row. And with the stakes involved Milicic could be forgiven for abandoning his attacking mantra in a game of this importance. But like Caesar, urging his troops on in the face of civil discord, sometimes courage alone can win the day. We’ll know soon enough if this is Australian women’s football’s Rubicon moment.