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Matildas break down stubborn Iran to kickstart Olympic qualification

With a warm post-World Cup glow emanating from the thousands of green and gold-clad supporters filling the stadium, a somewhat unfamiliar starting 11 Matildas – at least compared with their last eight games – lined up for their first step on the path to Olympic qualification. Clare Wheeler and Teagan Micah were in the World Cup squad but didn’t see any game time, as well as a whole new face in midfielder Amy Sayer, who narrowly missed out on the home tournament, making her seventh appearance for the senior national team. In the end it was a familiar face, wingback Ellie Carpenter, who opened the scoring after 18 minutes of scrambling attacking. Followed, eventually, by substitute Sam Kerr late in the second half.

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Tony Gustavsson had warned with a wry smile the day before that there could be “rusty performances” from the Matildas in this opening Olympic qualifier due to the short lead-in time of just a few days and with players travelling from their northern hemisphere clubs. “I do think we were rusty tonight,” the coach said after the win. “If you look at conversion rate as well, normally our conversion rate is much better in terms of those chances that we have. This could have been a game where we scored about five or six goals considering what we created.”

The less than reassuring first-half performance was more likely down to the relative inexperience of this particular combination of players in a match setting rather than jet lag, and it highlighted the absence of the Matildas veterans on the pitch.The midfield pairing of Wheeler and Emily van Egmond commanded the centre but their darting runs and inch-perfect through passes were not enough for the forward line to break through the solid Iranian defence. Van Egmond had the best chance herself with a long-range shot in the 18th minute that travelled just high and wide of the top corner.

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As the half progressed Carpenter began to drive forward up the flank in the knowledge that Iran were sitting so low. After multiple squandered opportunities, a cross from World Cup shootout hero Cortnee Vine found Charlie Grant on the edge of the six-yard box. She was able to lay it off to Carpenter who took one touch before slotting the ball low and left of the keeper.

One might have thought the goal was the moment needed to unleash the potential of the Matildas’ promising attack, but the half continued much the same as before with their impressive runs and passing still leaving them wanting at the final hurdle.

It was a strange sight to see the likes of Sam Kerr, Steph Catley, Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso in their jumpers and bibs running drills in the half-time break. The mere sight of them wandering the boundary was enough to send the crowd beserk, potentially even more so than for Carpenter’s goal.

With an unconvincing 1-0 lead, Gustavsson made his first move at the break, World Cup stalwart Alana Kennedy replacing Clare Polkinghorne at centre back. At first it seemed their momentum had shifted, with chances for Grant and the excellent Wheeler hitting the sides of the net.

By the 65th minute, it was time for the big guns with a triple switch of Sam Kerr, Mary Fowler and Steph Catley on for Alex Chidiac, Tameka Yallop and Grant. The effect was instant, although not immediately on the scoreline. Catley and Fowler demonstrated how to go about navigating the low block and Kerr expertly positioned herself high in the box.

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It finally paid off in the 79th minute. Catley laid the ball off to Fowler on the right who sent it straight back for Catley to cross into Kerr who comfortably sent it home. It signalled the moment when the Iranian defence seemed to finally tire from their determined efforts, but it still didn’t open the floodgates.

Iran utilised whatever tools they could to hold up play and keep the scoreline at 2-0 for as long as possible: namely spending significant chunks of time on the turf awaiting medical treatment.

It may not have been the desired thumping the Matildas had hoped for but it got their campaign to better their fourth-place Tokyo finish off to a positive start. After the Philippines’ 4-1 defeat of Taiwan earlier in the afternoon, the scene is set for a blockbuster at Optus Stadium in a few days time.

Gustavsson acknowledged that Sunday’s game against Mark Torcaso’s side would be more difficult. “It’s a very well organised team and they work extremely hard and don’t hesitate to tackle either, there’s some physicality there that really impresses me. And you can see they have a very very clear idea of what they wanted to do. So we know this is going to be a very, very tough challenge.”