Gustavsson hopes emerging Matildas stars step up in friendlies against Spain, Portugal

As far as litmus tests go, there are few that can prove quite as illuminative as measuring oneself against the rising might that is Spain. No wonder, then, that almost 12 months ago Australia coach Tony Gustavsson, having constantly proselytised the need for his side to face high-quality opposition, zeroed in on a fixture with La Roja. The chance to play such opposition is rare and, given the heavy Barcelona-flavour to the side, difficult to replicate.

But now, with the June 26 meeting between the two sides almost at hand, as well as a June 29 game against Portugal, Gustavsson has run into a problem. As his opponents peak for next month's European Championship, several of his key players, per his sports science team, are close to their physical breaking point.

This was driven home in the last club game before the international window, at the end of a hellacious stretch of domestic and international football that has crisscrossed continents, when standout defender Ellie Carpenter suffered a rupture to her ACL in Lyon's Champions League win over Barcelona, leaving her in a race against time to recover and find form before next year's Women's World Cup.

"I can't shy away from the fact that this is a really tough one. Especially for Ellie, I really feel for her," Gustavsson said. "We were concerned before it happened because a couple of players were on the edge in terms of load. We were a bit worried.

"I was in England watching the FA Cup final, watching Sam [Kerr] winning the league and it was the same thing: as a coach I was hoping we could please get out of this game and get to the summer break."

As a result of these concerns, the Matildas squad that will take on Iberian opposition will be absent a score of its highest-profile names. In fact, given the significant domestic histories of the players that have been tapped and the heavy Barcelona influence on Spain, Gustavsson shared an anecdote from within the camp of comparisons of the Spain fixture to a recent "A-Leagues All-Stars" clash the A-League Men staged against Barca's men's team.

But this ultimately raises the question of what, exactly, can be taken from the games? With so many members of the starting XI absent, can any positives be extrapolated and replicated when they return with their different skill-sets and habits? Will any weaknesses exposed against an experimental side have any bearing on the full-strength team?

"That's one of the things we spent time on in the last week, realising what type of roster we were going to have," Gustavsson said. "We need to have a realistic expectation of some of these players coming from the club environment they're in now, especially in the local market, and we're going to play players that were in a Champions League final some weeks ago and they're preparing for a Euros. So we need to be realistic with what we expect results-wise."

Through name recognition alone, the most glaring absence is in the attack. Gustavsson has made no secret of his admiration for the skill set that Chelsea striker Kerr brings to his side and readily acknowledges that she is their primary avenue to goal, to the extent he has faced questions as to if his team is too reliant on her to score and if their build-up play suffers as a result.

But now, without her or figures such as Kyah Simon, Mary Fowler, and Caitlin Foord, the goal-scoring options carry a decidedly different look; Aston Villa striker Emily Gielnik is the most well-credentialed figure amongst the forwards.

"What we've done in this camp, if you look at the different types of forwards we have in this camp, we've also looked at what type of forwards do we need in a World Cup roster in 2023? Not only from a starting perspective but also from a game-changer [substitute] perspective," the Matildas' coach said. "And if you look at the forwards that we've brought into this camp you can see that they're very, very different profiles.

"There are some with one area of expertise in there, there's some really pacey, running behind forwards in here, there are some really physical, powerful, strong forwards in there. We've probably got to make some tactical adjustments for both Spain and Portugal. But I'm excited to see these different types of forwards."

In reflecting on his squad, however, the Swede frequently spoke of the need to manage expectations for the players coming into the side in place of his rested stars.

This, in particular, was the messaging when asked about the absence of Carpenter, whose ability to get her team up the pitch through her runs forward has become a signature part of the Matildas' game and helped to obfuscate some of their historical challenges in the midfield.

"We can see the results when Ellie isn't there," he said. "We can't shy away from that, it's a fact. But we need to have a positive and optimistic mindset that, ok, now we know she's going to be away for a while and we need to take this opportunity to have a look at the different options we have to replace her and plug that hole.

"I want to be very clear here, we also need to be realistic with the expectations on that player because I think what's going to happen is that we're going to start comparing that player with Ellie and I think we need to be fair to this player that steps in, that we can't expect that player to be Ellie. That player has to step in and be themselves.

"We have some options in this camp now that we're going to look at and then it depends on the lineup. Do we play a back four? Do we play a back three?

"We've always been able to go in and out of those tactical changes and we might see both of those in this camp as well because we need to look at both. If it's a back four, who is playing right-back for Ellie? If it's a back three, is that Ellie player playing in the actual back three or as a wing-back?"

Nonetheless, if there was one area that could be considered a "veteran" group in the coming games, it would be the midfield; Katrina Gorry, Tameka Yallop, Emily van Egmond, and Alex Chidiac are all tested against foreign foes at international and club level.

Highlighted by the return of Gorry, who had a transformative effect on her team's play as a deep-lying regista, the unit produced arguably its most functional performances against New Zealand in their last series; providing a base to build upon in the 12 months leading into the World Cup in July 2023.

But there are few challenges greater in world football than taking on a Spanish midfield anchored by reigning Ballon d'Or Feminin winner Alexia Putellas and packed full of Barcelona flavour, and it is in this area of the park where the most lessons can be extracted from the coming matches.

"That game is going to be dictated right in there," Gustavsson said. "It's almost like that old quote ... 'When you play a team like that you can't decide whether you're going to have the ball or not but maybe you can control where they have the ball.'

"But, you've also seen that the few teams that have been able to challenge them have had a midfield that can actually keep the ball themselves. And I would love to see the things we saw from our midfield in that New Zealand game, a midfield that was connected, that linked our backline and forward line together, that was the engine and the heart of the team both defensively and attacking.

"If I can see that, even if not for a full 90 minutes, but if I can see that in parts of the game against Spain; a midfield that can actually be a heart and an engine and that connects the team together both defensively and attacking ... I would love to see that in parts of the game.

"Yes, we want to be aggressive but the times we can't be aggressive we need to be really compact and patient in our defending. And when we then win the ball, if we keep giving it away again there's going to be wave after wave after wave and we're going to break, and they're going to score goals on us.

"So we need to be really good in that transition moment and have a midfield that is good enough with the ball to actually outplay their aggressive pressure, so we can have the ball ourselves a bit."