BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL
From the first time Alen Stajcic was handed the reigns of the Matildas, the Sydneysider believed that his team, Australia, could be a world class side and consistently competing for medals.
Stajcic has since spent the intervening two years working hard to put that same belief into the Matildas squad.
Today, in Belo Horizonte, he will find out if those lessons have been absorbed and if that belief is genuine because a win today in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games quarterfinals will indeed have Australia competing for those medals.
The path to the quarterfinals has not been as smooth as Australia would have liked. The loss to Canada was a wake up call, if they needed one, and a reminder that the top 10 nations in the world are closer than rankings or points would suggest.
That point was further illustrated in the second match where Australia outplayed the world no. 2 Germany but, as a champion nation often does, the Germans found a way through to claim a much needed point.
The final game saw a reasonably clinical performance against Zimbabwe to see Australia through to their second Olympics quarterfinals appearance.
Brazil will be sweating on the fitness of star forward Cristane. The 31 year old is the all time leading goalscorer at the Olympics and her work with Beatriz and Marta has resulted in Brazil’s goal rush this tournament.
For Australia, they will be hoping that the rest for Laura Alleway against Zimbabwe was enough for the central defender, who went down against Germany.
Brazil’s Player to watch: Marta
This is the Captain Obvious choice but it is so obvious because Marta is so central for Brazil. The 30 year old has been in sensational form during the tournament with a hand (scoring or assisting) in almost all of Brazil’s 8 goals this tournament. Her presence on the bench in the last game against South Africa demonstrated just how crucial she is to the attacking patterns of Brazil. This tournament has been one of recognition for Marta in her home country. Often plying her trade abroad with little reward at home, from carrying the Olympic rings flag in the opening ceremony to the thunderous ovations at matches, she is finally being celebrated as a 5x FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year deserves.
Australia’s Player to Watch: Lisa De Vanna
Like her Brazilian counterpart Marta, De Vanna is at the heart of Australia’s attack. At 31, the winger is still as influential and still as explosive as she has ever been. What has changed in her game is her creativity and ability to bring her fellow forwards into the game. What has also changed is the innate confidence De Vanna has in her fellow forwards to do the job. While she is not the sum of Australia’s attack, she is certainly a crucial figure.
What to expect?
20 – 30,000 people are expected to fill the Estádio Mineirão and 99% of them are confident of a Brazilian win. This is not surprising considering the relative ease with which Brazil have moved through the tournament with 8 goals and yet to concede any. Australia on the other hand, as noted above, have had a rockier path to this quarterfinal and few, parents and friends aside, expect the Matildas can do much against the host nation.
Basically, Australia is facing the same scenario as just a little over 12 months ago when they took on Brazil in Round 16 of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Australia enters this match arguably better prepared and better rested than they did that rainy day in Moncton. Key players have had rest and the team has worked extensively on their fitness.
This match is about the defences. In Australia and Brazil, they both possess considerable attacking power and how the back 4 holds up will be key to the eventual result. Enter Elise Kellond-Knight. KK will need a similar performance to that she produced in Moncton. Her ability to break up Brazil’s attacks should assist the defence in keeping their shape and also playing off to the in form Australian attack. Shape will the crucial with Brazil’s intricate passing able to splice open defences around the 18 yard box and work in behind.
This match will also be about pace. Australia are arguably the quickest starting XI in the competition across the park. So far this tournament, Brazil have not faced a team that has come at them in the manner Australia is sure to do. The well structured and disciplined German defence were generally unable to handle it.
Finally there is the question of Caitlin Foord. There is no denying that Foord, as a right full back, has gotten in Marta’s head in the past couple encounters. However this tournament Stajcic has been playing her exclusively as a forward. So which position does he play her in? That answer might be key to the eventual result.
These are two sides with some of the best attacking talent in the world. They are also two who since 1989 have played tight encounters with barely a goal separating them. Australia should not fear Brazil.
For Australia history awaits.
Brazil v Australia
Friday, 12 August 2016
Kick off 10pm (Wednesday, 13 August 11am AEST)
LIVE nationally on 7 (LIVE stream: 7rio2016.com.au)