If the Matildas’ first match in Perth was blowing out the cobwebs, and the second was a merciless show of skill, then the third was a lesson in operating under fatigue. After two matches in four days, Tony Gustavsson’s side showed on Wednesday evening how tiredness can bring them down a notch or two. The frustration of not being able to penetrate Taiwan’s defensive block was evident on Sam Kerr’s face as one after another of her attempts hit the goalkeeper or missed its mark. On the flip side there was one player who showed no sign of wearying – Mary Fowler shone from start to finish, eventually opening the scoring with a stunning long-range strike. Second-half goals from Kerr and Tameka Yallop sealed the deal for a 3-0 victory to round out the tournament.
The first half was a far cry from the spectacular goal-fest at Optus Stadium a few days earlier when everything seemed to click in to place. The last time these two teams met was in a similar scenario for the second round of Olympic qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics – with the Matildas defeating Taiwan 7-0 that day. While the goals did not flow so easily, at least not at first, Australia has locked in its spot in the final round of qualifying early next year.
In their final appearance on home soil for the year, and with Ellie Carpenter, Emily van Egmond and Cortnee Vine having departed Perth to return to their clubs – the latter due to a hamstring injury – Gustavsson made one change to his starting lineup. Clare Wheeler, normally a midfielder, was rewarded for her breakout performances with a spot in the starting XI in Carpenter’s right-wingback position.
Australia had myriad chances in the first half – 16 shots on goal with only four on target – but could not find the back of the net. Gustavsson was quick to point out after their last game that this team had now proved they could perform against lower-ranked teams. That, unfortunately, was not the case at first. Taiwan well and truly parked the bus in defence and were able to holding off the Matildas relentless probing. Fowler rattled the crossbar early in the half off the rebound from a corner. A smart turn and curling shot from Caitlin Foord was well saved by Taiwan’s goal keeper Cheng Ssu-yu. Another long-range strike from Fowler went inches north of the top corner. More than one Kerr header soared over the goal.
Heads were shaken and arms flapped in frustration as the players walked off the pitch at half-time. Something had to change.
The injection of pace and energy from Charli Grant for Wheeler at right back did not seem like it would be enough on its own. Then Foord and Fowler soon started to lift their intensity further. Poised a couple of metres out from the penalty area, Fowler collected the ball from Clare Hunt, and with one touch to control and one to tap it out in front of her, belted it into the top right corner. Waves of celebration and relief rippled around HBF Park and a grinning Nathan Cleary, yes, the Panthers NRL champion, flashed up on the big screen, Fowler’s personal life unnecessarily highlighted in her moment of glory.
The Matildas lifted, and six minutes later Kerr’s persistence paid off. There was some scrambling in the box after a low cross from Foord was nearly deflected in for an own goal, but Kerr was there to pick up the scraps and nailed it home. Job done, the captain thanked the 19,000-strong crowd and walked to the sideline to make way for Tameka Yallop.
With 15 minutes to go, there was more great work in the area from Foord, again working her way through defenders to the touchline, her shot across the face of goal looked like it was going to go just wide of the far post and Amy Sayer, who came on at half time for Hayley Raso, cut it back to Yallop in the centre for the Matildas’ third goal.
With three wins from three in this tournament in Perth, the Matildas finish the second round of Olympic qualification comfortably on top of their group and through to the final round early next year. Who they will face in that round remains unknown, but whoever it is the Matildas will be prepared for a more challenging opposition than they have faced in this round.