Super sub puts polish on Matildas display
Five months ago Hayley Raso's back was broken, three vertebrae fractured and their owner wallowing in the depths of deep despair and lonely rehabilitation just to get out of a wheelchair, let alone play football.
Update: On Thursday night at Leichhardt Oval Australia's ribboned revival was complete, as the Matildas winger revelled in her return to the international stage with a goal to ice the Cup of Nations victory over New Zealand.
That added to Emily Gielnik's first-half opener for a 2-0 opening win of the inaugural tournament, which sets the Matildas up nicely to play South Korea at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday and Argentina at AAMI Park on Wednesday.
If Ante Milicic was nervous before his maiden match in charge, he did a decent job of hiding it.
And if the members of his new squad on the field against New Zealand felt any apprehension playing under a new coach three months before a World Cup, they betrayed not a hint.
For, despite the conservative scoreline, the world No.6 Matildas never looked like ceding this contest against the world No.19 old rivals from across the ditch, against whom the Matildas played their first-ever fixture in 1979.
That was a 2-2 draw. Some four decades and 28 undefeated matches later the natural order remains against the team coached by former Matildas coach Tom Sermanni.
"I was a little bit worried before the game if nerves would hold them back a bit," Milicic said.
"But I must say I was really pleased - more so first half - with how they went about the game plan."
"When you've only worked with a team a few days it's difficult to know how they'll execute the principals ... just on one performance I feel there's already a clear, distinct playing style."
Sermanni said his side had "prepared to nullify the Matildas as best we can".
"When you consider where both teams are in relation to the preparation - the Matildas have all come off a full W-League season ready to go and we've got players who haven't played since October - I was really proud of the effort," Sermanni said.
Australia fired warning shots early - a searing Elise Kellond-Knight free-kick that shook the crossbar, a powerful Sam Kerr header that drew a fine reflex save from Erin Nayler and a chance for the in-form Caitlin Foord, as a rotating front three also featuring Gielnik sensed vulnerability and looked to exploit it.
They were serviced not by long balls, a direct sort of route eschewed in favour of playing out from the back via rapid passing play that sliced through a passive New Zealand midfield with relative ease.
It came as a surprise that Kerr, the newly anointed captain, was culpable for an errant pass that would have sent New Zealand through on goal had the offside flag been mercifully raised.
She wasn't the only offender, but for every misdirection there came an eagerness to win the ball back, Tameka Butt's challenges a particular delight in this regard.
The efforts may have reaped reward earlier had a clear New Zealand handball in the box been called for a penalty.
In the absence of the VAR play continued and Foord executed a neat one-two with Steph Catley only for its recipient Emily van Egmond to inexplicably wide of the far post.
No matter, Catley - the new vice-captain - soon crossed again and Abby Erceg's clearing header popped up for Gielnik, who saw Naylor rush of her line and cut an almost casual figure as she swept home a first-time finish.
The deserved lead came as no shock on the balance of play.
For Australia's counterparts were erratic orchestrators at best, offering comparatively less in the way of urgency, save for Sarah Gregorius' wisping run that ended with the ball comfortably in Lydia Williams' gloves.
After the break Gregorius might have made it count when a well-weighted long ball from Annalie Longo drew Williams out, though her lob flitted just wide.
Not before Foord skied a volley, Kerr curled wide, Butt hit the woodwork and Milicic set about a quadruple substitution to bring on Sydney FC stars Lisa De Vanna, Amy Harrison and Teresa Polias and Melbourne Victory's Laura Alleway.
But it was Raso's introduction - ubiquitous ribboned ponytail and all - that caused the most impact, and her impatience was palpable.
With her first touch the 24-year-old almost scored with a would-be assist from Harrison.
Then, three minutes into her shift, she picked up possession on the edge of the area, whipped around two defenders and rifled home.