Exhausted Matildas miss out on World Cup bronze in 2-0 defeat to Sweden

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Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson is an emotional guy, if you haven’t noticed. But before Saturday’s third-place play-off, he promised he wouldn’t let his heart rule his head when it came to selection.

“It’s not about giving players experience just for the sake of giving experience. This is a game to win,” he explained.

Fatigue be damned, then. Gustavsson rolled out the same starting team against Sweden – the same 11 battle-weary players who looked out on their feet against England on Wednesday night.

To nobody’s shock, they looked out on their feet. The effort was always there, but in opting for continuity, Gustavsson got lethargy instead, and the Swedes got the bronze medal, prevailing 2-0.

How much does this really matter? Probably not a lot. This game was a bit of a free hit. Fourth place isn’t to be sniffed at. They should still be proud. Nobody really remembers who finishes third at a World Cup, anyway – but if it was the Matildas, we would have.

That doesn’t mean this wasn’t an incredible tournament. None of this takes away from any of what they’ve done or dull the transcendent memories they’ve shared with the country.

A dejected Sam Kerr after Sweden’s second goal in Brisbane.Credit: Getty

But it is a bit deflating to finish up with two consecutive losses – and it’s OK to say that, and talk about why.

It does, again, raise valid questions over Gustavsson’s decision-making, and the head vs heart battle he spoke about. For three years he has stressed the importance of building depth, using it to explain away this team’s previous struggles – but, come crunch time, he refused to use it.

No other team at this World Cup asked so much of so few players.

Sweden also named an unchanged team, and have gone through the same rigours as Australia – but not only did they have an extra day to prepare for this match, they also made a total of 26 substitutions before this match, compared to 17.

Kosovare Asllani celebrates after scoring for Sweden.Credit: Reuters

Only twice were Gustavsson’s changes made before the 75th minute. One was to bring on Sam Kerr against France. The other was bringing off an exhausted Hayley Raso against England – in the 72nd minute.

Sweden have used 22 of the 23 players in their squad. Australia used only 17 before this clash, and a couple of those barely featured.

Seven of Australia’s players had logged more than 500 minutes. Sweden? Only two.

In a sport defined by such fine margins, these little things add up. Gustavsson has shown incredible faith in his mainstays – he might argue, perhaps fairly, that that’s precisely why they got so far – but showed very little in the others. Here, the Matildas were just slightly off, and it’s equally fair to assume the reasons.

Fridolina Rolfio’s penalty opened the scoring.Credit: Getty

This time, Gustavsson turned to his bench on the hour mark, summoning Emily van Egmond and Cortnee Vine to replace Katrina Gorry and Raso.

But it was too little, too late. Two minutes later, their lead was doubled as a rasping drive by Swedish skipper Kosovare Asllani flew past Mackenzie Arnold’s outstretched glove, while a zapped Mary Fowler tried in vain to close her down.

It gave the Matildas a mountain to climb. And after seven physically and mentally gruelling games in a month, they just didn’t have another ascent in them.

Sweden started strongly, dominating possession and forcing Arnold into action inside the first minute, producing a low, one-handed save to deny Stina Blackstenius. It took a while for Australia settled to the match, but on the few occasions they were able to put things together, they looked good.

Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson.Credit: Getty

But those moments were too scarce, and the Swedish threat was ever-present. In the 26th minute, a header from Fridolina Rolfo rattled the crossbar – but as Arnold prepared to take the resultant goal kick, the long delay spelled doom. Or, more specifically, it spelled VAR.

Referee Cheryl Foster was called to the sideline to review an incident from the same passage of play, in which Clare Hunt’s foot accidentally clipped the heel of Blackstenius, who tumbled in the box just before the cross that Rolfo nodded into the woodwork.

It was harsh, and possibly the only mistake of Hunt’s international career to date, but it was fair: the penalty was given, and converted by Rolfo at the same end of Suncorp Stadium where Arnold’s heroics got the Matildas past France in that epic penalty shootout a week ago.

Arnold had to make two more strong saves before half-time to keep the margin at 1-0, denying Asllani and Magdalena Eriksson, while at the other end, a fizzling drive by Kerr was also parried away by Musovic.

The Matildas never really got going, but Clare Polkinghorne – playing possibly her last Matildas match in her hometown – nearly got one past Musovic from a 70th-minute set piece.

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