Australia played the kids against Thailand in AFC Asian Cup, and young Matildas showed promise

When Thailand pushed Australia all the way to penalties in the 2018 Asian Cup semifinal, players on the Matildas labelled their own eventual victory "embarrassing" and "very, very lucky."

Fast forward to 2022 and the Matildas 2-1 victory over Thailand in the final group game of the Asian Cup highlighted both the progress that has been made and some of the stubborn concerns that still remain.

It would be unfair to directly compare the 2018 and 2022 games. One had a spot in the final on the line, this one was a dead rubber for Australia who had secured qualification to the quarterfinals with their two earlier group stage wins. But that 2018 game left a set of benchmarks that can now be used to assess just how far this Matildas side has or hasn't come in four years -- a quadrennial progress report.

- Subscribe to ESPN's Women's Football Podcast: The Far Post
- ESPN+ viewers' guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more

The most noticeable and stark difference between these two games were the starting line-ups. Not a single player from the 2018 semifinal started in Mumbai. Eleven players from that match day in Jordan were in the 23-player squad for this game in India.

This speaks to the continuing effort to blood new players and grow the playing pool for 2023 and beyond. While the core group of Matildas are still very much in their primes, by introducing these players now, a painful rebuilding process will hopefully be avoided.

For the final group game, Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson elected to play his young, less experienced players, interspersed with the likes of Lydia Williams in goal, Steph Catley and Aivi Luik in the heart of defence, and Emily van Egmond in the centre of the park. After all the conversations surrounding Gustavsson's decision to not play the kids against Indonesia, the kids were well and truly given a chance.

A front line of Holly McNamara, Remy Siemsen, and Cortnee Vine boasted six caps between them and no goals. Courtney Nevin and Charli Grant were deployed as the full backs with a combined total of 12 appearances. Kyra Cooney-Cross and Clare Wheeler have just 21 Matildas games between them.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this game, however, was not that the opportunity was given to these players but rather that it was taken with aplomb.

Vine continued to show just how lethal she is down the right flank. She also showed off her flexibility being pushed into right back in the second half, displaying the same kind of dare and dash so often showed by Ellie Carpenter, who did not feature in this game due to her yellow card.

Wheeler impressed again in midfield and allowed Van Egmond to roam further up the field. It was a decision that once again paid off on the scoreboard with Van Egmond opening the scoring in the 39th minute with a classy low strike.

The midfielder has contributed the second-most goals to Australia's campaign behind Sam Kerr, who nabbed the Matildas second after being subbed on in the 80th minute -- her toe poke after the Thai goalkeeper fumbled a save was ultimately the match-winner.

With Catley utilised as a centre back for this match and no Carpenter, it was left to Grant and Nevin to fill in. Nevin once again showed she has an impressive left foot while Grant worked her way into the game, showing more attacking impetus in the second half.

Gustavsson noted just how happy he was that despite the difference in line-up from the first and second games of this tournament, the team still played how he wanted. "I'm also happy from a football perspective because we've been true to who we are no matter who's on the park," he said. "We play the same way. Everyone sees the same picture.

"And we have the aggressive mindset, we attack with the ball, create a lot of chances -- I think we had 24 shots today. Again, we could have scored a couple of more, but I'm also happy that we play the same way no matter who's on the park."

Wheeler echoed those sentiments, noting that every single member of the selected Matildas squad has now played some minutes. It's a far cry from the Olympics where only 19 of 22 players were used. The luxury of being able to rest and manage player loads to allow them to peak in the knockout games compared with the Olympics is one Gustavsson is hoping will pay dividends.

While the kids impressed, it was perhaps unsurprising that even with a relatively untested line-up and the obvious positives, the desire for more goals remained the same. Much like the match in 2018, the Matildas continued to create chances without creating goals. Back in the semifinal, Australia registered 27 shots for just seven on target. In this group stage game, the team had 24 shots with eight on target.

While the Thai defence deserves credit for their commitment to their defensive structure and their ability to make scoring difficult for the Matildas, there is still an expectation that the Matildas could and should be doing better in front of goal.

Thailand also deserve credit for the spectacular last minute goal they scored, which helped them qualify for the quarterfinals as one of the best third-placed teams. Nipawan Panyosuk's stunning volley showed great technique and that the Matildas defence still needs some tightening. With a goal difference of +23 and only goal conceded in the whole group stage, it was telling that Australia was focused on the one rather than the 24.

"I'm happy how upset the team were after the game. Not that we won the game, but they were upset about the goal that we conceded in over time," Gustavsson said. "We put in clean sheets in this group stage and we've done a phenomenal job defensively, when we lose the ball, we've worked really, really hard.

"But the players were really upset, we conceded to not keep that clean sheet. And that says a lot about the mission these players are on now. Instead of celebrating the win and the group stage win, they're upset about that one goal and that says a lot about their mindset."

The Matildas now face South Korea in the quarterfinals. They know they will need to stay switched on against a South Korean side poised to offer the Australian defence its sternest test to date. They will also know that the attacking prowess they themselves possess should be enough see them through.

The question -- as ever -- remains if Australia can turn what they know into what they do.