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Rio 2016: Schedule from hell, but Matildas confident they will make Olympic Games

Late call-up: Ashleigh Sykes Photo: Morne de KlerkThe Matildas’ road to this year’s Olympics isn’t for the faint-hearted – think five matches in 10 days – but coach Alen Stajcic is confident his side will come through the tournament, which starts on Monday in Osaka, clutching a place in Rio de Janeiro.
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Kicking off their campaign against 2011 World Cup winners Japan, who finished runners-up at last year’s event, the Matildas then face Vietnam on Wednesday, followed by South Korea, North Korea and China, with each game just 48 hours apart.

The Matildas need to finish in the top two to qualify for the Olympics, which means defying their world ranking. They’re presently ninth, but are below both Japan (fourth) and North Korea (sixth). China are ranked 17th, South Korea 18th and Vietnam are eleven places further back.

While the Olyroos suffered a spectacular failure in Doha in January, winning just one match and failing to get to the knockout stages, Stajcic happily carries the burden of being Australia’s last football hope at the Olympics.

“I don’t think it adds extra pressure, I think the pressure is high enough and we put that pressure on ourselves because we just want to be successful,” he told Fairfax Media. “We really think we can be a top-ranked nation in the world in the coming years and if we believe that, and if we keep saying that, then these are the events where we have to prove it. Regardless of whether the Olyroos qualified or not, we really need to start stamping our authority on international women’s football.

“We’ve got a group of players here who can really take it to the world’s best. There’s no better opportunity than the Olympics and getting there has to be a main priority for us. We’ve put everything we can into it.”

Part of the belief stems from the side having a strong preparation, which the coach believes will hold them in good stead throughout the five games.

“The pre-planning involved getting the players as match-fit as we can be, so having the physical and the mental preparation to go through that schedule was the most important factor in our last three weeks of camps that we had back home,” he said. “They were very intense, both from a technical and tactical viewpoint, plus the physical component, because we’ll need to have the physical durability to last the 10 days.

“From here, it’s a delicate tactical puzzle of who we play in which game and putting that jigsaw together every match day, where we have our best team out, for each match day, but still keeping in mind that the human body can only do so much. We’ll try to give players rest where we can and keep them as fresh as we can throughout the period.”

Stajcic admitted the risk of injuries was much higher than usual, despite all the precautions and planning.

“There was a similar tournament four years ago and I’m not sure what the injury rates were but the more you play like this, the greater the chance of injury,” he said. “I can’t say I’d like to see this tournament happen again and hopefully the next time the AFC propose this event, there will be an extra’s day’s rest in between, which I’ve heard on the grapevine that there will be.

“Hopefully they push ahead with those plans and don’t congest the schedule like this because obviously it’s not ideal for international football, or any football for that matter.”

However, the coach is pleased to be getting the strongest team in the group, Nadeshiko Japan, out of the way first-up after losing to them at the quarter-final stage in Canada.

“It’s a bit like playing USA in the first game at the World Cup. It just gives the whole team a focus from minute one of the tournament,” he said. “That definitely happened for us at the World Cup and will do here. The other advantage is that we’re fresh and we’re playing them first, where we can’t really blame fatigue or any other reason, a little bit like we did at the World Cup, where it was our fifth tough match in a row.

“We certainly have a good belief we can take the game to them and be a lot more positive and keep the game a lot better than we did last year in the World Cup quarter-final. We’ve had a good look at that game and have seen areas where we can improve, both with and without the ball and the players have really embraced it.”

W-League golden boot winner Larissa Crummer was a late withdrawal from the squad thanks to knee injury, paving the way for Ashleigh Sykes to join the squad. While Stajcic concedes it’s a massive blow, he’s rapt at the depth the competition is regularly producing.

“The awareness of the W-League is certainly increasing, which is fantastic, and now we need to see it grow both on and off the field, if we are going to have a successful national team,” he said. “It’s really important that the club promote it, it’s really important that the federation promote the game, that the media jumps on board, because we certainly have a viable thing here and we need to give it all the strength we can. The best part is the potential in our next generation of talent is incredible.”

All of the Matildas’ Olympic qualification matches will be shown live on 7mate and streamed on Plus7 Live.

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