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Matildas face gruelling schedule as Guus Hiddink warns of player burnout

Imagine Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak and the Socceroos being tasked with beating Germany on a Monday night, and then two evenings later being asked to meet Northern Ireland, before facing Brazil and then Croatia in quick succession before taking on a resurgent Wales in their final game of a crucial qualifying tournament.
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And all within the space of 10 days.

It simply wouldn’t happen.

But that’s the case for the Matildas, in Japan at the moment looking to qualify for the Rio Olympics.

The women’s game is still developing internationally, and female players’ terms and conditions still lag behind those of their male counterparts by some way, if for some understandable commercial reasons.

But the physical task being asked of the six teams qualifying for the two Asian spots for the Rio Olympics women’s soccer tournament would put even the best prepared male athlete to shame.

Five games in 10 days is a huge ask, one which will test not just the quality of each country’s starting line-up, but the strength in depth of the entire playing group.

OK, in the women’s game Australia are not exactly minnows. They are ranked No.9 in the world at the moment, the spot occupied on the men’s ladder by England – and all the equivalent men’s team parallels drawn above are where those respective countries currently stand on the latest FIFA ranking, published on February 4.

Still, playing so many tough competitive games in such a short period does pose risks – as former Socceroos boss Guus Hiddink, now the Chelsea manager, has pointed out.

Hiddink has urged doctors at the Football Association (FA) and Premier League clubs to protest against the tough English and European fixture list and ask for more breaks for players being pushed to the edge of their athletic limits.

Chelsea have to play four games in 12 days across three competitions after the club’s sixth round FA Cup tie with Everton was scheduled for March 12.

The Premier League champions visit Norwich City on Tuesday and host Stoke City on Saturday, before their Champions League last 16 second-leg tie at home to Paris Saint-Germain the following Wednesday and the FA Cup tie three days later.

“Hopefully the PSG game doesn’t go into extra time because players need time when the intensity of the league is like it is. The medical people at the FA and the Premier League should make this known. Every club has medical departments. The doctors should stand up and say: ‘FA, television, whoever … hey’,” Hiddink said.

His comments will surely be noted by the Matildas with wry interest.

On seedings the Australians came into this qualifying tournament, being staged in Osaka, ranked in third place with Japan (ranked No.4) and North Korea (ranked No.6) ahead of them.

But with China, South Korea and Vietnam ranked 17, 18 and 29 respectively, Alen Stajcic and his squad can leave nothing to chance.

So a 3-1 win against the hosts in front of their own crowd was a perfect start on this sprint towards Rio. Australia had not beaten Japan in six previous attempts, and this victory was a measure of compensation for a defeat in the quarter finals of the womens world Cup in Canada last year

DREAM START

Lisa De Vanna, a W-League winner this season with Melbourne City, gave the Matildas a lead with a powerful header midway through the first half.

Michelle Heyman then took full advantage of a fortunate rebound off the referee to round Japan goalkeeper Erina Yamane and finish off well after De Vanna’s pass had put her through.

Japan pulled one goal back just before the interval when Yuki Ogimi struck, but Australia’s two goal cushion was restored in the second period with a header by Katrina Gorry, who took full advantage of the space that was afforded her to score off the post.

“We know they’re a world class opponent and we’ve prepared over the past four weeks to play this match and play it at a tempo and a rhythm that we wanted to rather than how we played the World Cup match against them six months ago,” said Stajcic.

“I thought we did that very well and compared to six months ago I thought we controlled better patches of the game and even though Japan created quite a few chances I think we were a threat and a lot more positive than we were in that game six months ago.”

“We executed a lot better than that day and I think we thoroughly deserved the win.”

“It’s the first time we’ve beaten Japan in Japan and from my living memory I think it’s the first time we’ve beaten a world champion team in a major tournament rather than in a friendly so there’s lots of history attached to the result but we’re not close to qualifying at all yet,” said Stajcic.

“It’s just one game, there are four more tough matches. This is a tournament where any team can beat any team…so we’ll enjoy this win for an hour and then we’re focusing on our next match because if we think this is enough we won’t qualify.””

The Matildas next face Vietnam, who lost 2-0 to China, on Wednesday.

The result in the other game favoured them as the two Koreas drew 1-1.

With agencies

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