The Australian U17 women’s dream of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Costa Rica came to an abrupt halt last night as China accounted for the Australians 2 goals to Nil in a tense and hard fought battle at the Jiangning Stadium in Nanjing.
Right from the onset, Australia were confident, displaying a real sense of purpose driving deep into the forward line but were simply unable to finish the job against a well-oiled Chinese machine. Errors cost the Australians dearly as China took full advantage and pounced to now advance to the semi-finals against DPR Korea on Thursday.
Early on, concern showed on the face of the Chinese coach Gao Hong as everything did not go according to plan. The Australian girls stepped up their work rate and challenged hard, splitting open the Chinese defensive line on numerous occasions but gradually the Chinese took control and their fitness and physicality came to the fore.
Wilson and her support team have worked tirelessly for this day and she was adamant her girls were ready for their biggest challenge of the tournament campaign to date.
After the first 20 minutes it looked very promising with Sunny Franco and Alexandra Chidiac in damaging form early as they have been during the lead-up to this match. The pressure was squarely on host nation China to perform and nerves may have contributed to the shaky start.
The starting lineup was constructed around experienced keeper Teagan Micah in charge of protecting the goal line along with the defensive backs of Chloe O’Brien, Siena Senatore, Brooke Goodrich and Sophie Nenadovic, all aware they would have a busy night ahead of them.
In the engine room Wilson settled for a new look combination of Ayesha Norrie, Isobel Dalton and Alexandra Chidiac to control play and bring the talented forwards Eleni Fakos, Sunny Franco and Angela Beard into the play.
Key for Australia was to get off to a quick start against the Chinese and force errors through the midfield but every advance was met with resistance from the Chinese defense who has been training for the last 3-4 months locked away in fulltime camps in preparation for this tournament.
As the game progressed the Chinese began to arrest back control of the ball and settle into an aggressive and physical on-ball game. The Australians game plan was maybe too predictable - based around the FFA curriculum of playing out of defense, China pressed up hard taking advantage of loose play and cutting off several passes that subsequently opened up the Australian defensive line.
It took until the 31st minute mark for China to register their first goal through the class of Cui Yuhan who was lurking inside the box and found herself on the end of number of passes to strike home the shot from short range. With their confidence up, the Chinese pressed again and created another opportunity that Fan Yuqui capitalized on and all of a sudden Australia were in trouble at two nil down heading into the break.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Wilson substituted Eleni Fakos and Isobel Dalton for some fresh legs with Jess Waterhouse and Rhianna Pollicina entering the fray. The defensive line played their hearts out with Chloe O’Brien and Brooke Goodrich holding it together along with Alexandra Chidiac and Sunny Franco up forward who never stopped running and challenging the Chinese, hoping to create an error but the class of the Chinese prevailed.
As the game progressed, the Chinese maintained composure and looked to play ‘keepings off’ with the Australians through clinical possession football. Late into the game, Captain Sunny Franco was mauled by a Chinese defender deep in the box injuring her right calf and hobbling off the field with Wilson having to substitute Emily Henderson into the game.
At the 85 minute mark, a skillful piece of play saw Alexandra Chidiac manouvre her way through traffic for a one-on-one with the Chinese keeper which she won but unfortunately failed to convert her good work and hit the back of the net. The game peetered out with the Australians exhausted from the constant chasing and inability to regain the ball from the Chinese with the final score line remaining at 2 nil.
As the final whistle sounded, the disappointment was evident on the face of the Australians as they genuinely believed they could cause an upset in Group A. But there was no questioning of the commitment and passion displayed by the girls during the entire tournament.
Belinda Wilson's thoughts
Asked after the game about the result, Wilson said “I am very proud of the girls. The first 15 minutes we played the way we planned to, our tactics were good and the girls were all switched on."
"Slowly but surely China gained more possession, got into the game and became comfortable. We switched off for one small moment and they took advantage of that and they scored and good teams do that at this level.”
“Unfortunately from there our heads dropped and they outnumbered us in the midfield and the girls couldn’t react to that and solve the problem."
"We addressed that at half time and we came out a little more organized in the midfield in the second half and stopped them coming through forcing them to play the long ball which we were able to intercept. But we eventually ran out of legs towards the end of the game as we were consistently chasing the ball the entire game."
Wilson added, “China are well rehearsed and I know in terms of their preparation they are a team that’s together 24/7 for 3-4 months prior to the tournament so they live together, they school together, they train together and that’s what you saw out there tonight."
"A team, where each individual knew their role in the game and at the end of the day, we were not good enough defensively, players did not understand their roles, they were slow to react and when we did win the ball, we were reactive rather than proactive.”
“We tried to play good football and for the future we need players to go back home and work on the areas we have identified here tonight and then feed this back to the state federations so that the next generation of players coming through including the current players understand their roles better and at this level, know how to apply themselves.”
On the future of the group, Wilson said, “We have some superstars in the making coming through with young Alexandra Chidiac who is still only 14 years old and still qualifies at this age level for the next tournament."
"We have Sunny Franco and Ayesha Norrie (Brisbane Roar) along with a couple of other players who can really advance forward in their football if they continue their development."
"I just hope that when they all go back home, they are not too disappointed in terms of what happened out here today and pursue their dreams of playing for the Matildas in the future.”
And so although this dream has come to an end, it seems the journey is only beginning as this group of 23 young women all have proudly represented their country, their families, their teammates and themselves in a very professional and honourable way.
It would be fitting for many of them to eventually be capped as Matildas in the future and there is no doubt the depth of talent coming through is very exciting for the women’s game.
Thanks must go to the many FFA support staff who have looked after our daughters during this year-long campaign and the many parents who have travelled the globe supporting the team.
As a great coach named Vince Lombardi once said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”
Girls - Never Say Die!