Have the Matildas really got what it takes to win the World Cup?

Ranked sixth in the world, Australia will be in the mix but expectations should be tempered

Australia, we need to talk about the Matildas. It’s time we had a frank conversation about their chances at the World Cup. We are all, on the whole, more than a little bit excited at the prospect of them storming to victory in France next year. We have the team to do it.

This is widely considered the golden generation of Australian women’s football. We’ve been saying “wait until 2019” since the 2011 World Cup. We’ve been looking forward to the tournament when players like Sam Kerr, Kyah Simon, Tameka Butt, Caitlin Foord and Emily van Egmond will be at their peak. This playing group represents Australia’s best chance yet and Kerr seems out to prove that personally, given her unstoppable goal scoring rampage over the last two years.

More of you than ever before are getting behind the team. Welcome to the party! You were there in the stadiums to break attendance records, putting your bums on seats and you’re watching the games in unprecedented numbers on TV. And you could break those records all over again on Saturday.

The Matildas are ranked sixth in the world and failing a major upset or two against the unknown quality of World Cup debutants Chile, they should retain that ranking and head into France as a seeded team. This, Australia, is a huge deal. It means the Matildas won’t meet the other top five ranked teams in the group stages and, as much as we love to hate it, no group of death.

But realistically, should we – the fans, the media – expect them to win it?

“I think they’ve proven themselves that they’re capable of beating any team on the day,” says Joey Peters, the former Matildas midfielder and now coach and founder of Game Play Learn.

But this is the World Cup and it’s a bit longer than a day. It’s a month-long tournament with up to seven games, if they make it all the way to the final. “At the last World Cup, if we reflect back, we probably got tired by game five,” coach Alen Stajcic told Fox Sports. World Cups are hard yakka.

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What is Stajic doing differently to prepare for this World Cup to make sure the players don’t wear themselves out too early?

“What you need is depth so that every player you have confidence in to put on, [you know] that they are going to do just as well just as your first XI,” says Peters. “Stajcic has been saying that he’s trying to build that depth and versatility. Sometimes a positional change can be as good as a rest, even just psychologically. That’s a good weapon that we’ve got.”

So, while it might unsettle us to see strikers reinvented as defenders, they’re on the right track. Have they nailed it yet? We can’t know that until we get to France. It’s hard to replicate a World Cup environment, and you probably shouldn’t. Marathon runners don’t run marathons to prepare for the big race.

“It’s unknown territory,” says Peters. “That amount of games in a month plus your preparation beforehand, you’ve got a couple of friendlies leading in, it’s very hard to replicate that. It’s one of those things you almost can’t.”

There are a few worries. Have they peaked too soon? Are players burnt out? Even if that’s a risk, it’s better than it used to be. Maybe. At the time of the 2007 Women’s World Cup, the issue wasn’t rest, it was the lack of consistent, high-level play and preparation and even greater risk of injury.

Something that concerns Peters, is the apparent lack of ability to adapt within the game. “As much as you want to make sure that you’re confident in your own style of play, I think what we really need to work on is reacting in games to what’s actually happening in the game. Did we go down a goal? Are we up a goal? Can we change something within the game to make something happen within the 90 minutes? I think that’s our probably our biggest weakness and hopefully that’s what they’re working on at the moment.

“That’s what I’d say is the biggest factor in the tournament. You need to be able adapt within the tournament within the game to what the opposition is doing and to what the conditions are on the day.”

The Matildas have defeated plenty of top quality opposition in the last couple of years, but those teams have had plenty of time to study Australia. Stajcic has to be wary of his side becoming predictable, easy to read and easy strategically and tactically to beat.

The French dished out a harsh lesson in how a team can counter the Matildas style of play. They’d have learned a lot from that.

So, what does this all mean? What should we expect from the Matildas in France?

Peters says we’re right to expect them to reach the semi-finals, “and this particular team is proving that it should at least perform to that expectation”.

“If you’re reaching the semi-final then of course you’re thinking you may as well go all the way.”