Czech mate: Matildas overcome slow start to win Cup of Nations opener

The Matildas have taken a solid if unconvincing first step on the home stretch towards the FIFA Women’s World Cup, overcoming a sluggish first half to thump Czechia 4-0 as Clare Polkinghorne broke the team’s all-time appearances record.

Tony Gustavsson’s side finished a turbulent 2022 with a string of impressive friendly wins that threw the many critics off his back – but it was hard to tell whether those performances were a long-awaited sign that he finally had Australia heading in the right direction, or just a flash in the pan.

Hayley Raso celebrates a goal with teammates during the Cup of Nations match between the Matildas and Czechia at Industree Group Stadiumin Gosford.Credit:Getty

As much as it is a glorified series of friendlies, the Cup of Nations was always going to a much truer barometer – and the Matildas’ opening match in Gosford on Thursday night, scoreline aside, did not always provide the most promising reading.

Sam Kerr gave up the captain’s armband for veteran defender Polkinghorne, who wore it as she became Australia’s most capped player of all time in her 152nd appearance for her country, breaking the record set by Cheryl Salisbury – and she will have not only a win to remember the occasion by, but a goal, too, which came with six minutes to go.

Hayley Raso also grabbed a brace to spearhead a second-half onslaught from the Matildas, who were cheered home by 7702 fans at Industree Group Stadium, but they were lucky to not concede before then.

Gustavsson had urged everyone – media included – to treat this game as if it was July 20, the day of their World Cup opener against Ireland. Indeed, Czechia were hand-picked as opponents to help replicate the sort of stubborn defensive challenge they expect to face that day at Accor Stadium in Sydney, while this mini-tournament is being approached by the team as a dry run for the real thing in five months’ time.

To be fair to Gustavsson, most fans would happily endure another dreary 45 minutes like this if it would guarantee them a 4-0 win over the Irish – and at a World Cup, results are all that matter. Plus, this one came with a rare clean sheet, their third in a row.

That said, the absence of attacking imagination early on from the Matildas was problematic – and the gulf in class between them and their next opponents Spain, who moved the ball beautifully in their 3-0 win over Jamaica earlier on Thursday, was crystal clear. And that was Spain’s B team.

Ranked No.28 in the world by FIFA, Czechia failed to qualify for the World Cup but aren’t exactly mugs, having held world champions United States to a draw last year – and so in that light, this wasn’t bad at all. Yet if Australia are to challenge for the sport’s biggest prize, they simply have to play better football against these sorts of teams.

Granted, there were some late arrivals from Europe in camp this week, and as Gustavsson pointed out pre-match, more than half of his squad for the Cup of Nations has played little to no football in the last few months, and the lack of rhythm and imagination was obvious as they were held scoreless to half-time.

Sam Kerr celebrates a goal with Alex Chidiac during Australia’s 4-0 thumping of Czechia on Thursday night.Credit:Getty

Czechia actually generated the three best chances of the first half – and while all were saved by Mackenzie Arnold, who got the nod at goalkeeper ahead of Lydia Williams, the way they were given up was worrying.

Raso finally broke the deadlock three minutes into the second stanza after receiving a brilliant pass from Kerr and finding the near post via a deflection off Czech custodian Olivie Lukasova.

She then scored her second in the 55th minute from a corner kick, bundling debutant Clare Hunt’s header across goal over the line to effectively take the sting out of the Czech resistance.

Kerr then made it three with 20 minutes to go with a powerful finish after Alex Chidiac’s blocked shot fell neatly for her – although the substitute midfielder deserves the credit for crafting a chance out of nothing with a clever, darting run – while Polkinghorne rounded it out by poking home from another corner in the 84th minute.

Still, better will be needed from the Matildas as they switch their attention to Sunday’s showdown with Spain in Sydney, which looms as a much sterner test of their credentials.

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