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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

Heyman saved the party amidst Matildas' hero's welcome in Adelaide

Australia took on China at Adelaide Oval on Friday night in the first of a two-match series to send off Tony Gustavsson's team to the Paris Olympics. A-League Women's top goalscorer Michelle Heyman provided a late silver lining in an admittedly subpar performance by the Matildas.

Michelle Heyman celebrates her injury time equaliser against China at Adelaide Oval. (Image: Ben Blaess/BDb.media)


Adelaide welcomed the Matildas back to South Australia for the first time in five years, with a familiar face on the Steel Roses' bench. Ante Milicic was in charge of the Matildas when they defeated Chile by a solitary Emily Gielnik goal in front of 10,342 fans at Hindmarsh Stadium back in 2019.


The worldwide rise of women's football combined with a highly successful home Women's World Cup for the Matildas has driven demand for the team to an unprecedented level. That fact was clear by the team's ability to sell out Adelaide Oval, a venue that caters to just over 50,000 spectators, with 52,912 fans showing up despite the persistent rain throughout the day.

With the deadline for the final 18-player Olympics squad approaching, Tony Gustavsson's decision to start stars who are locked in for Paris on the bench, such as Steph Catley, Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso, Ellie Carpenter, and Kyra Cooney-Cross, may have disappointed the capacity crowd. They were compensated by seeing local hero and former Adelaide United star Charli Grant get a start in her home city.


Despite the anticipation, the Matildas failed to give the crowd something to cheer for in the opening half. A couple of sloppy mistakes opened the door for the Steel Roses to create chances, one of which young star Zhang Linyan eventually took at the half-hour mark to stun the home crowd into silence.

Ante Milicic took charge of his first game as China's manager, with his team taking the lead against his former side Australia. (Image: Ben Blaess/BDb.media)


The heavily rotated Matildas, also trialling a new system, was effectively neutralised for the entirety of the half, with China threatening to extend their lead in the dying minutes of the half through Linyan and Wurigumula, who could not convert.


Gustavsson admitted that fact after the match: "I think they were better than us in terms of the game plan and aggressiveness. I think they were extremely well-prepared."

Australia's manager also alluded to the fact that the majority of his players came into this camp either off the back of gruelling European seasons or after a substantial break following the conclusion of the 2023/24 A-League Women's season.

 

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Despite a much more positive start to the second half, Gustavsson stated that he values the connections and chemistry players have between them, which led him to making wholesale changes when he decided to look to his bench in the 58th minute.


The capacity crowd was overjoyed to see Catley, Foord, Raso, Carpenter, and Cooney-Cross take the field. Gustavsson effectively introduced half of his World Cup starting XI from just over a year ago.


Unsurprisingly, the Matildas started piling on the pressure. Still, a well-drilled China side was able to shield their goalkeeper, Xu Huan, effectively. She was not forced into any substantial saves for the majority of the 90 minutes.


Unfortunately for the goalkeeper, it was her mistake deep into injury time which allowed Australia one more roll of the dice from a free kick wide on the edge of the penalty area.


Mary Fowler's delivery stung Xu Huan, who dropped the ball into Michelle Heyman's path, and she scored to send the capacity crowd into raptures in injury time, a moment they had been waiting for all night.

Milicic was disappointed to see his team settle for a draw but admitted that it was a good result considering that, due to his limited time since taking over the role, he had to select the team based on what he saw from his players' games virtually.


The former Matildas boss praised the Australia's growth, a sentiment his counterpart Gustavsson echoed.


"It is very good to see everything from the open training session to when we go to the stadium, and in the stadium to see how many people have role models to look up to now," Gustavsson stated.


"I know for a lot of these players, their "why" is a lot about uniting people, inspiring the next generation, and leaving the game better than what they entered it, so I am very happy for them."

Milicic nearly achieved his goal of sending over 50,000 of his compatriots home disappointed. The Matildas will be happy that a challenging night ended with a crescendo that sent the crowd home happy, many of whom would have watched the team for the first time.


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