Set to welcome a familiar, and previously thought lost, face back to the fold, Tony Gustavsson and the Australia women's national team head to this month's AFC Women's Asian Cup seeking to remove the rod the Swedish coach has constructed for their own backs.
Revealed on Saturday, 25 members of a travelling Matildas squad will assemble in the UAE for a pre-competition camp from Tuesday, a group which will then be pruned to 23 ahead of their first game of the tournament, against Indonesia, on Jan. 21.
21 members of the party have already been confirmed for the tour proper while four -- Winonah Heatley, Holly McNamara, Karly Roestbakken, and Cortnee Vine -- will battle it out for the final two places on offer at that camp. Fresh off a third-place finish in the 2021 Ballon d'Or Feminin, captain Sam Kerr leads the confirmed contingent alongside key figures such as Ellie Carpenter, Caitlin Foord, and Steph Catley while the flag bearers of generation next, Mary Fowler and Kyra Cooney-Cross, will also make their Asian Cup debuts.
Speaking on the squad, Gustavsson also revealed that Katrina Gorry's strong return following the birth of daughter Harper had been recognised with selection, but the 29-year-old opted out due to the uncertainties and risks of attending an international tournament with a newborn infant in the current climate.
Of course, it can largely be said that players such as Kerr, Catley, and Fowler pick themselves in the current epoch; intrigue from Saturday's reveal instead derived from which bubble players have made the cut and what surprises have been sprung. And given that she wasn't supposed to even be in contention, Aivi Luik represents undoubtedly the most eyebrow-raising of players named for the assault on Asian supremacy.
Just last August, Luik, 36, was announcing her retirement from international football; riding off into the sunset alongside Laura Brock and writing on her Instagram that she "can't wait to see what the future has in store for this next generation!".
That's not to say that the veteran has been waylaid on a beach since then: the 33-time Matilda playing every minute of every game she has featured in for Italian Serie A side Pomigliano in 2021-22. In fact, though most recognised in Australia for her exploits as a defensive midfielder, Luik has consistently started at the heart of Le Pantere's back four throughout her first year in Italy.
Her presence in India, therefore, will provide both crucial reinforcement of a defensive front that has shipped 37 goals in 16 games of Gustavsson's tenure -- as well as give him the option of revisiting the back-five he used her in prior to her international retirement -- and provide another option in a midfield increasingly defined by dysfunction against set defences.
Nonetheless, given that the better part of the past six months has been spent searching for fresh blood, that the best option at the end of this exercise was apparently luring a 36-year-old out of international retirement hardly serves as a ringing endorsement of this process' efficacy -- even if Gustavsson makes no apologies.
"It's about trying to get results and win the tournament," he said on Luik's selection. "We don't want to do it at the expense of the development and tournament experience for young players but it's a very clear goal and a clear target.
"I needed to look at what is the best team to bring to the Asian Cup. Yes, we will always have a little bit of an eye on the World Cup cycle, as you can see there are some young exciting players here as well, but at this point right now specific to Aivi, it's just [a return for the Asian Cup]. We haven't even spoken about anything else - just about is she ready to come back and help us in this tournament specifically.
"I know that some might think she's taking a spot from a young player - a young player deserves to be picked. Yes, there's a lot of players that have been given a chance this year in preparation mode but when it comes to a senior national team environment I want to be clear that a roster spot or a cap is never just going to be handed out.
"That's one of the reasons Aivi is here: it's what's best for the team. And my job is to bring the best possible team to the tournament."
On a psychological level, the return of the known quantity in Luik -- someone who can be relied upon to supply a consistent baseline -- may also reveal the pressure that Gustavsson, either consciously or subconsciously, is feeling to get results with the 2023 World Cup hosts.
Ever since leading Australia's women to their first-ever Bronze Medal match at the Olympics, the Swede has been as consistent as he has been vociferous in declaring the subsequent friendly games against the Irish, Brazilians and Americans were forums for experimentation and adaptation. It was only against the world's best sides, he argued, that the Matildas' could continue to properly assess where they are and develop the approach and mindset required to challenge when the Women's World Cup arrived on home soil.
Against such a backdrop, results were declared a secondary consideration. The time for judgement, it posited, was when he and his side flicked the switch and transitioned from "preparation mode," and into a "performance mode": when experimentation and pontification were replaced by a pursuit of results.
While this philosophy, in a harsher light, could be said to be a mighty convenient one for a coach overseeing a side experiencing, at best, highly inconsistent form in friendlies against strong opposition, there was also a level of logic to it. A Performance Gap report handed down by Football Australia just before his tenure commenced illustrated the reliance that Australia had on a small group of senior players and the severe lack of youth breaking through and establishing themselves. With a home World Cup looming, the cupboards had to be restocked to provide the type of depth that allows nations to challenge for the mantle of the world's best.
However, while in the job of a senior international football coach the task of talent development is an important one -- as demonstrated by the Matildas' current state -- it is nonetheless secondary to winning games of football. Or, to be more accurate, winning trophies.
In setting out to lessen the stakes associated with his side's friendlies Gustavsson has, in an equal and opposite reaction, raised them for major tournaments. It's only logical. If he is to declare that some games are to mean less, then the ones that do matter must therefore mean even more.
And with there being no more major tournaments between the Asian Cup and the 2023 World Cup, a display will be required when the air is thick in the coming weeks to demonstrate that the squad is on a trajectory to deliver come July and August next year. In fact, given that, in a recent interview with the ABC, Mel Andreatta described herself as feeling like something more approaching a co-coach than an assistant, a poor performance will ramp up the pressure on the entire structure of the Matildas' coaching staff.
Fair? Maybe. Maybe not. But with a once-in-a-lifetime home World Cup on the horizon, where expectations will be the Matildas at least stage a push for the final, the stakes for everything surrounding the women's game are set to increase to the nth degree in the year ahead -- pressure on Gustavsson, Kerr and Co. to deliver.
And delivery, in the short term, means, at least, showing that "performance mode" can deliver a fifth Asian Cup final in six attempts and, in an ideal world, a first Continental crown since 2010. You'd expect little else from a side with genuine aspirations on a World Cup.
"I like [the pressure]. It's a privilege to feel pressure and I'm looking forward to it," said Gustavsson. "I am a winner and I like to compete. I love tournament mode.
"The interesting question that we've looked at is why are we going to win it this time? We haven't won it since 2010 and we asked ourselves why? If you look at the stats against Japan and you look at competitions -- not friendlies -- we've only beaten Japan once in 11 years. One win in 11 years against Japan.
"It's not just Japan that stands on the other side but that has tended to be the key opponent to pass on the way to the title. So we've done a lot of analysis to see why we're going to win it now.
"But it's going to be a tough challenge. A bit of a reminder to everyone what happened against Thailand in the [2018 AFC Women's Asian Cup] with the last-minute [semifinal] goal. We can't take anything for granted, we can't look at a final now when we're entering the tournament.
"It's not that simple, otherwise we would have done it plenty of times since 2010."