Sydney: Australia head coach Ante Milicic said his side must learn from being pushed to the limit by China PR at the Western Sydney Stadium on Thursday.
A supremely disciplined Steel Roses side came within 120 seconds of pulling off a shock away win against the World Number 7 Matildas, only to be denied by Emily van Egmond’s superb injury-time equaliser, which lifted the Australians above the Steel Roses on goal difference.
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Van Egmond’s last-gasp heroics mean her side will now face Vietnam instead of Group A winners Korea Republic in next month’s Play-offs, but while Thursday’s result did no harm to the Matildas’ bid to reach a second successive Olympic Games, Milicic said he will reflect on the manner in which it was achieved.
“We came up against a team which was very well drilled, very organised, very disciplined,” said the former men’s national team striker.
“We didn’t have the solutions quick enough or often enough. The times that we did, we looked good. In the end, you can see that China is a side that has been invested in, is well prepared and a difficult opponent, but I can’t fault our girls’ effort.
“They kept on believing, they kept on going and I’m delighted that we got the equaliser and ended up topping the group.
“We have to learn from this. We’ll review this, and as soon as we do, we’ll move forward and turn our focus to Vietnam.”
While the Australian camp has dutifully monitored player loads and match minutes throughout this campaign, Chinese boss Jia Xiuquan started an identical line-up in all three matches, but his charges somehow maintained an electric intensity, giving their opponents little room to work with and setting up a near-impenetrable midfield block.
“It actually wasn’t even a counter-attack (that China PR was utilising),” Milicic said.
“Because we couldn’t even get into the opposition half. We couldn’t get through that block. The front two (Wang Shanshan and Tang Jiali) were very, very disciplined.
“The thing that surprised me with China, is: when I looked at their first two matches, I thought they dropped off in the second half. When I looked at their match minutes and their line-up, I expected the game to open up a bit more in the second half and I thought that we would be able to play through them. It just shows what good physical condition they’re in.”
Milicic believes the Steel Roses’ diligence and organisation also shows the amount work that has been done in the weeks and months prior to the competition, including two winter training camps in Australia in successive years featuring friendlies with local top-flight clubs.
The Australian coach, who has spoken highly of the Chinese programme all week, warns that the days of coming up against an unprepared national team in the women’s game are long gone.
“Of course, (China PR) are going to get better,” he declared.
“Of course, they’re going to be more organised, of course they’re going to be fitter, of course they’re going to have two or three different ways of playing. Because they’re always together.
“The women’s game isn’t what it was four years ago. Some countries (were) not investing, sleeping. Everyone is awake now. That’s the difference, and it’s moving at a rapid rate.”
While Australia dodged a scare, China PR still face what is sure to be a challenging two-legged affair against a Korea Republic side spearheaded by Chelsea star Ji So-yun.
Jia, whose well-drilled side so nearly completed a perfect three wins from three against all odds, applauded his side for a lionhearted effort.
“I am very touched by my players’ execution and their performance,” said Jia.
“The team’s overall performance was very good. Australia is a very strong team with a high FIFA ranking but this game has given us a lot of confidence. We also see there is still a gap between us and the top teams in the world, so there is still a long way to go for us.
“The Chinese women’s national team has a glorious tradition of teamwork. Although we faced some difficulties (throughout this tournament), during the process the mentalities of our players improved a lot, and they were eager to show their best on the field.”
Photos: Football Federation Australia, AFP, AFC
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