Australia lost 1-0 to Sweden in the women's Olympic semifinals, but can hold their heads up high after almost beating one of the world's best teams. In the end, Australia controversially had Sam Kerr's goal ruled out for a foul in the 42nd minute and Fridolina Rolfo scored the goal of the game a minute after half-time -- a scrappy effort after some pinball in the Australia penalty area -- as the Matildas rued their missed chances.
They will now face the world's No. 1 side, the United States, in the bronze medal match on Thursday, and have to do so without defender Ellie Carpenter who was sent off in the final minute. But Australia will hold out real hope they can claim a medal.
Gustavsson's tactical shift almost works
The day before Australia played Sweden (the world's fifth-ranked side) for a spot in the Olympic final, Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson was asked how he planned to address the weaknesses that the Swedes had exposed in their 4-2 defeat in the group stage last week.
"A lot of their attacking players are in the form of their lives; you can see that in their attacking game," he said. "They score a lot of goals. Their willingness to run and defend as a team is impressive. But I also think, in parts of the game when we played them last time, we showed we have things in our locker that can hurt them. That's why we scored two goals, but obviously you don't win if you concede four, so seeing if we can stop those forwards in the Swedish team in the semifinal coming up."
Kyah Simon, who earned her 100th cap on Monday, underlined the point. "Sweden have always been such a high-quality team. I think they have an abundance of experience at international level. They have a lot of threat up front and danger in the final third."
The group stage game proved a glimpse into the semifinal future that awaited Australia. Gustavsson saw exactly how Sweden liked to attack and, conversely, the weaknesses they identified and exploited in Australia's defensive line.
Last week, Aivi Luik -- who was deployed at left centre-back, despite being a natural defensive midfielder -- was regularly outpaced by the speedy Swedish winger, Sofia Jakobsson, who assisted two of Sweden's four goals from wide areas, feeding both Fridolina Rolfo and Linda Hurtig in similar ways.
In Monday's semifinal, Gustavsson rectified that. Instead of Luik, he deployed full-back Steph Catley on the left -- a player with far more pace and experience in that area -- to shepherd and keep Jakobsson quiet. And for the most part, it worked. Sweden were forced to move the ball down other channels due to Catley's strength and Jakobsson subsequently had one of her quietest games of the tournament.
While it did mean Catley was not given the same license to charge forward and create attacks for Australia, Gustavsson's tactics extended further: he shifted Tameka Yallop ever so slightly to the left of midfield to shore up the defence and compensate for the attacking momentum Catley's central move lost, while also bringing the hard-running Chloe Logarzo into the starting XI to ensure Australia didn't lose their central midfield engine.
The result: Australia had 54% possession to Sweden's 46%, more corners, free kicks, and more shots in total.
These are the kinds of games where tweaks and tactics, balances and compromises, can change games. Sadly in this case, they did not.
Still, while the goal that lost Australia the game was a bizarre set of circumstances -- Logarzo partially blocked Filippa Angeldal's long-range shot but it was deflected, bounced, and a backtracking Teagan Micah was only able to tip the ball onto the crossbar for Rolfo to flick in from close range -- Gustavsson's tactics did their job, and that is something the team can take confidently into the bronze medal match against the United States.
The 'game-changers' show the way forward
Following Australia's dramatic 4-3 win over Great Britain, it was revealed that skipper Sam Kerr was effectively running on one leg due to injury. There were fears that Kerr wouldn't be available to start the semifinal against Sweden, though Gustavsson was at pains to insist that Australia are not a one-woman team, saying: "If you look at that Great Britain game, we won the game with the game-changers coming in, winning the game for us. It was 17 players representing us in the quarterfinal."
His comments spoke not just about Kerr (who did start in the end) but about the players he brought on just after the hour mark in the semifinal against Sweden: Clare Polkinghorne and teen stars Kyra Cooney-Cross and Mary Fowler.
Fowler was the first substitute to look dangerous, spinning and sending a shot just wide of the far post within minutes of coming on. Further, she helped in the build-up to a dangerous cross by Hayley Raso, and won a foul just outside the area that Alanna Kennedy sent over the crossbar in the final 10 minutes.
Similarly influential was the introduction of Polkinghorne. By bringing the veteran centre-back into the defensive line, it allowed Catley the freedom to move forward that the previous hour of play had denied her. The result was Catley having one of the best chances across the entire game, charging upfield and latching onto a ball in acres of space. While she fired her shot straight at goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, the idea and the overloading pressure was still evident.
Cooney-Cross, while less visible, had one of the most dangerous crosses of the game, measuring a perfect pass from the right wing that Lindahl palmed away just as Kerr threatened to bury it.
As the broadcast commentator said with just over 10 minutes to go: "[Australia] are playing against one of the best teams in the world in Sweden and they're more than matching them."
Although Australia's game-changers weren't able to get a result this time, the fact that they made such contributions is proof positive of Gustavsson's holistic squad philosophy and the importance of the "finishing XI" -- something that, in a gruelling competition schedule like this one, could be the difference between a medal and fourth-place against United States.