The Matildas scored three late goals to defeat Uzbekistan in the Paris Olympics qualifier.

The Matildas scored three late goals to defeat Uzbekistan in the Paris Olympics qualifier.

The Matildas are close to qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, after a convincing three-nil victory over Uzbekistan. Despite a challenging match, experienced forward Michelle Heyman scored upon her return to the international stage, followed by goals from Mary Fowler and Caitlin Foord to secure a comfortable win for the Matildas.

The final result was a decisive win, however the game was filled with frustration during the cold afternoon in Tashkent as missed opportunities piled up. The substitution of 35-year-old Heyman in the second half, who had previously retired from playing for their country, made all the difference – a storybook comeback for the leading goal-scorer of Canberra United.

The Matildas started the initial match of the crucial qualifying round in extremely cold weather. Snow lightly fell on Milliy Stadium, posing a potential record-breaking situation – according to Football Australia’s official statistician, the Matildas have never competed in snowy conditions before. The flurries stopped before the game began, but the temperature remained at zero and both teams were seen wearing gloves.

Due to Sam Kerr’s ACL injury and Caitlin Foord beginning the game on the bench as a precaution for load management, Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson made the decision to give Kaitlyn Torpey her debut. Though she typically plays as a full-back, the newly signed player from San Diego Wave was positioned higher up the field to assist with the attack in the absence of Kerr and Foord.

After six years out of the Matildas, veteran Michelle Heyman scored Australia’s first goal in the Paris 2024 Olympic qualifier in Tashkent.

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The unconventional maneuver predicted a prominent motif in the first half: the Matildas showcased flashy play but lacked the end result, being in control but unable to score. Repeatedly, opportunities were missed, highlighting the lack of a traditional forward.

Fowler had a strong start, causing Uzbekistan’s goalkeeper Maftuna Jonimqulova to make a diving save after twelve minutes. However, this was the only successful attempt as the Matildas struggled to convert their possession and tempo control into goals. Despite their exciting buildup play, they were hindered by their lack of accuracy with the final touch. Many potential scoring opportunities were wasted.

During halftime, Gustavsson substituted Torpey and put Foord back in her typical position in the Matildas’ starting lineup. Foord’s aggressive play was noticeable right away, as she took a dangerous shot just minutes after coming onto the field.

Caitlin Foord scores Australia’s third goal during the 3-0 victory in the first-leg of the Paris 2024 Olympic qualifiers against Uzbekistan.View image in fullscreen

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Despite their efforts, the Matildas were unable to score a goal. Whether it was Emily van Egmond, Foord, Fowler, or Hayley Raso who had a chance, the Australian offensive players were unable to convert. Additionally, Uzbekistan’s striker Diyorakhon Khabibullaeva posed a threat to goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold around the 60th minute minute.

Once more, Gustavsson looked to his bench for a source of inspiration and chose experienced player Heyman to join the Matildas on the field after a six-year absence. And once again, the substitution proved to be effective as Heyman’s near-post run resulted in a corner kick and her subsequent header narrowly missed the cross-bar.

Finally, it arrived. It wasn’t the most attractive, but it ended the stalemate. And who better than Heyman – eight years since her last goal for the Matildas, her comeback to the international stage marked by a crucial score. Heyman jumped up to meet a corner from Steph Catley, connecting with a shot after a save by Jonimqulova and finding the back of the net.

After that, the team from Tashkent dominated the game. Just under 10 minutes later, Fowler, a player from Manchester City, skillfully maneuvered through the Uzbek midfield and scored a goal that the diving Jonimqulova couldn’t stop. Shortly after, Foord scored the third goal by successfully heading in a high cross from Catley.

Australia’s superiority over Uzbekistan was evident in the final score on Saturday, but it did not reveal the entire narrative. The team faced increasing frustration as they struggled to take advantage, but a late surge of goals made their efforts worthwhile. Despite the challenges, the Matildas persevered when it mattered most, displaying determination that will surely please Gustavsson as they prepare for the much-anticipated Olympics.

The Australian team will quickly head back home after the first leg, as they were originally scheduled to go straight from the stadium to the airport. The Melbourne crowd is excited to support the World Cup champions on Wednesday, and their victory in the second leg will almost guarantee them a spot in Paris.