The history books may record it as a draw, but Matildas Head Coach Alen Stajcic was given plenty to think about after his side escaped Craven Cottage with a 1-1 result against England.
An early strike to superstar English striker Fran Kirby set the tone for a controlling performance from the Lionesses of England, with an experimental Australian XI incredibly fortunate that they went into the halftime break only down a single goal.
Employing a high press, England were able to suffocate any forward moves the Matildas made for vast swathes of the contest, with Australia only able to eventually force their way back to more level footing as the second half wore on.
In contrast, England was seemingly able to get in behind Australia’s back four of Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley, Clare Polkinghorne and Ellie Carpenter at will; given too much time down the channels to tee up combinations that sprung attacks on goal.
Nonetheless, the day was far from a total wash for Australia; the performances of teenagers Princess Ibini, Amy Sayer, and Mary Fowler all giving reasons for Matildas fans to be optimistic as the inexperienced trio refused to be intimidated by their highly ranked opposition.
Australia’s refusal to die and eventual fightback – their second half was a marked improvement from the first – will also give Australian fans reason to be happy; Polkinghorne’s 84th-minute header forcing a draw that may prove pivotal with seeding for the draw of next year’s World Cup looming.
The warning signs flashed early for Stajic’s squad in Wednesday morning’s contest as the Lionesses monopolised possession from the get-go; forcing goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold to charge out to shut down a ball flicked in behind the Australian defence by Kirby for Beth Mead in just the fifth minute of play.
A long, looping ball from Keira Walsh across the pitch to Lucy Bronze three minutes later then sprung England down the right flank, the Olympique Lyonnais wing-back putting in a cross that arrived behind Mead at the near post – Mead forced to stage an acrobatic backheel to get a shot off that Arnold nonetheless did well to keep out.
Under siege, the Matildas created their first clear move through the English lines in the 11th minute of play when new Melbourne City signing Tameka Butt continued her run from the middle of the park after feeding Lisa De Vanna to receive a return pass.
The 27-year-old, however, found herself quickly closed down by the Lioness defence and was unable to get a shot off.
Butt’s half chance was a rare foray forward by the Matildas, with England quickly returning to dominate proceedings; comfortably knocking the ball between themselves and applying fierce pressure whenever possession was lost.
Said pressure paid dividends in the 21st minute when England’s overpowering press forced the Matildas into two subsequent poor passes that ultimately led to a turnover and goal.
Laying the initial heat Mead – who plays under Australian head coach Joe Montemurro at Arsenal – forced Matildas’ defender Steph Catley into a poor pass back in the direction of Arnold, which in turn placed the Australian keeper under instantaneous pressure from Kirby.
England’s Ballon d’Or nominated striker forced Arnold into a weak clearance that Mead quickly collected, immediately attacking the byline and cutting the ball back for Kirby.
Showing her class, the 25-year-old Chelsea striker refrained from shooting first time and instead turned on a dime to neutralise a defending Polkinghorne before sliding the ball into the net to make it 1-0 to England.
England’s dominance was telling: Australia not producing their first effort on goal until the 29th minute when Sayer, making her starting debut, launched a weak dribbler towards goal under significant pressure.
Minutes later, the 16-year-old produced a much more convincing effort when she forced England goalkeeper Mary Earps to quickly move to her left to swallow a long-range effort.
England should have gone 2-0 up in the 34th minute, when a header goalward from Steph Houghton off an Alex Greenwood corner was palmed back into play by a super bit of goalkeeping by Arnold.
Kirby was on the spot for a tap-in on the followup, though, with replays from an angle above the Craven Cottage goal appearing to show the ball over the line; but the officials were unmoved as Arnold collected the ball and cleared.
Looking to take advantage of the confusion as England appealed, Ibini quickly counterattacked up the other end and forced Earps into a save.
England had another, even clearer, goal denied by the officials just minutes before half time when a ball scythed through the Australian lines for Kirby sprung three Lionesses clear on goal.
Played onside by Polkinghorne, Kirby took Arnold out of the game with a cut back into the path of Lucy Staniforth, who duly tapped in. England’s celebrations, however, were cut short by the lineswoman’s flag, an offside somehow apparent to the official somewhere in the buildup.
If Head Coach Neville wasn’t already incensed with the officials at this point, he was just moments before halftime when it appeared as though Mead had clearly won a penalty for her side when brought down inside the area, only for the referee to wave play on.
Lucky to be down only 1-0 as they commenced the second half, the Matildas produced an early effort at an equaliser though Ibini, who ran on to a ball in behind the England defence from veteran De Vanna and shot from an angle, winning a corner for her side.
Responding, Toni Duggan had a shot on an angle denied by Arnold before the Lionesses created further chances with passes in and around the Matildas’ defence, Australia just doing enough to keep it 1-0.
Up the other end, a corner in from Elise Kellond-Knight on the hour mark found new City teammate Steph Catley for a header on goal but her effort was comfortably blocked by the English defence; who promptly countered quickly up the other end to win a corner of their own.
With the Matildas still being harassed by a strong England outfit, Stajcic swung a change that served to reinvigorate his side, introducing teenage sensation Fowler in the 66th minute.
The clubless 15-year-old – rumoured to be headed to Europe – flashed danger for her opponents just four minutes after her introduction when she blasted a long-range effort goalward that just flashed over the bar.
While still under pressure, a last-ditch tackle from Catley just enough to deny a nice bit of combination build-up from England that almost created a gilt-edged chance in the 74th minute, Australia were finally able to create some momentum going forward as the game wore on in the second half.
The newly introduced Emily Gielnik set up Ellie Carpenter to win a corner for the visitors in the 83rd minute, Carpenter launching a stinging shot from an acute angle that Earps was only able to deflect away.
The resulting Kellond-Knight set piece found a waiting Polkinghorne atop the six-yard-box, with the Matildas’ stalwart rising between two England defenders to nod an effort goalward that nutmegged Earps and earned her side a late draw.
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— Westfield Matildas (@TheMatildas) October 9, 2018