Australia coach Tony Gustavsson stands by his decision to pit the Matildas against the strongest possible opposition in preparation for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup, but he admits he underestimated the power of momentum and wonders whether some wins against weaker teams would have been valuable in building confidence.
Now, after almost two years in charge, it appears that in the coming international window he may have the balance just right as Thailand (ranked No. 41 in the world) join the No.2-ranked Sweden in making their way to Australian shores.
An Olympic semifinal rematch is the first challenge as Gustavsson's compatriots head to Melbourne. While it will be Sweden's first time in Australia since 2008, the sides met three times in 2021. A 0-0 result in a pre-Olympics friendly was followed by two Swedish victories in the tournament proper as they progressed toward a silver-medal finish.
This match will provide another valuable benchmark for the Matildas, about how they are measuring up against a side accustomed to progressing deep into major tournaments. The Swedes finished third at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup and reached the semifinals of the UEFA Women's European Championship in addition to their podium finish at the Tokyo Games.
Preparing the side for their ninth appearance at a World Cup, coach Peter Gerhardsson will be without Barcelona forward Fridolina Rolfo, who is being rested, as well as the injured trio of Juventus defender Amanda Nilden, AC Milan attacking midfielder Kosovare Asllani, and Arsenal forward Lina Hurtig.
While the Swedes will play all their Group G games at the Women's World Cup against South Africa, Italy and Argentina on New Zealand soil, they are taking the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the lengthy trip to that part of the world.
For Gustavsson, who has dealt with a constant string of injuries in his side, it is with relief that he can welcome players back for this window. They include Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Lydia Williams as well as midfielders Clare Wheeler, Emily van Egmond and Elise Kellond-Knight, who makes her Matildas return after more than 12 months out of the side with injury. Gustavsson said it is an emotional moment for the 113-cap veteran, and while it is wonderful to welcome her back into the green and gold, expectations should be managed.
"We shouldn't expect anything of 'K-K' right now" he told ESPN. "We should just be happy that she is back training with us and she is back with the team. It's a big step back into international football, she's been gone for over 700 days from international football, let's just be really happy to have her back in Australia and back with the national team to begin with."
Katrina Gorry has been in imperious form in the Matildas midfield, but the presence of van Egmond and a potentially in-form Kellond-Knight as options for next year, while reviving halcyon memories of the so-called golden generation of Matildas, adds to the welcome headache Gustavsson has in the middle of the park.
After signing for Melbourne Victory for the coming A-League Women's season, Kellond-Knight will continue her progress back to full strength under Gustavsson's nose in Australia. However, after just finishing the season with Hammarby in the Damallsvensken, her experience against Swedish opposition could prove valuable on the weekend.
In fact, Sweden is a popular spot for many current Matildas with Kyra Cooney-Cross plying her trade alongside Kellond-Knight, Teagan Micah enjoying success at reigning champions Rosengard and Aivi Luik a midseason addition to BK Hacken. Gorry and Charli Grant are at Vittsjo along with Clare Polkinghorne, who is closing in on becoming the third Australian footballer to chalk up 150 senior appearances for the national team.
Australia are back at AAMI Park for the first time in more than three years, and, while they will relish the opportunity to re-familiarise themselves with the venue that will host their final Women's World Cup group game against Canada on July 31 next year, a strong showing will also allow them to build on confidence and momentum, the two key intangibles that could make all the difference in eight months' time.