The quarterfinals lineup of the Olympic women's football tournament is starting to take shape as Sweden secured their place in the knockout phase at the Tokyo Games after fighting back against Australia to win 4-2.
A topsy-turvy game in Saitama produced six goals and set up a big match on Tuesday between the Matildas and the United States. Here are three things we learned from Saturday's action.
Timing is everything
In the five friendly games the Matildas played in the lead-up to Tokyo, coach Tony Gustavsson often talked about "peaking." Australia's big losses in those tournaments -- 10 goals in the first two matches -- came against teams who were at a different stage of their own cycle. But we saw, as that series unfolded, that the Matildas were gradually rising; their performances improved, as did the score lines. The big question coming into the Olympics was how much further that peak could reach.
Australia's Group G draw has, in that sense, done them a world of good. The opening game against New Zealand -- arguably the weakest opposition of the lot -- was the perfect launch pad: a game to stretch the legs, put into practice all the snippets and experiments Gustavsson had been doing over the past three months.
That peak, it seems, stretches further still. The Matildas' first-half performance against Sweden was arguably their best yet against a top-10-ranked opponent. Both sides were evenly matched in terms of possession and major opportunities created in each other's final third, and the teams entered half-time at 1-1, proof positive of the overall balance of play.
The trajectory, based on the Matildas' past two games, looks encouraging moving into the final group game against the U.S. -- the team that, more than any other, Australia needs to grow into over the course of their larger peak-and-trough tournament cycle. Compare this to Sweden, who -- in the first half, at least -- looked like they might have peaked a little too soon, going all out against the U.S. in their first group game. They didn't come out in the first half against the Matildas with that same energy or fight that saw them dominate the reigning world champions. But it is arguably the sign of a championship side that, despite not being at their peak, they were still able to get a result against a good side that forced them to work for it.
This was, then, a look at two different teams in two different stages of their own tournament cycles. One, Australia, seems to be growing into the group, but are yet to put together a complete 90-minute performance. The other, Sweden, is showing their gold-medal credentials through the holistic nature of their entire squad and the ways in which they can retake control of games after feeling it start to slip away. How each of them manoeuvres through their respective peaks into the final group game will, you'd think, define the rest of their tournaments.
Rotation, rotation, rotation
When the International Olympic Committee announced that the football tournaments would be expanding their rosters from 18 to 22 players to cater for the physical and mental toll in this high-turnover tournament setting after 18 months of little international football, you could almost hear the sigh of relief sweep across the world. Having four extra players available for selection means players can load-manage more effectively and prevent stress injuries/burn-out. It also means rotation becomes a key strategy in the way teams navigate the tournament.
Australia's only change from their win over New Zealand was in goal: Teagan Micah made her official "A" international debut after being chosen ahead of regular starting keeper, Lydia Williams. Micah's performance against Sweden in their recent friendly against Australia last month was enough to warrant an opportunity against the same side. Except, it wasn't the same side. Six players who took the field against Australia in June were not used in the game on Saturday at Saitama Stadium. Unfortunately for the Matildas, the six who came in happen to be some of the best on their squad, including goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, who made a number of crucial saves (including stopping Sam Kerr's penalty) to ensure Sweden skated through to the quarterfinals, as well as Sofia Jakobsson, who got the better of Aivi Luik on the right wing to assist two of Sweden's four goals.
Sweden's bench depth will be the deciding factor in how far they go, and based on how they've rotated their standout strikers Stina Blackstenius and Linda Hurtig -- both of whom scored against the U.S. and Australia (the former after coming off the bench) -- alongside the lethal influence of wingers Jakobsson and Fridolina Rolfo, who scored Sweden's two other goals against the Matildas, that could be all the way to a gold medal.
Australia, though, don't have the same luxury -- particularly not when it comes to a like-for-like replacement for Sam Kerr, who scored both goals. It's flattering, on the one hand, to be irreplaceable; but it's also a burden trying to navigate tournaments as intense and fast-paced as this one while being somebody everybody else relies upon so heavily.
Thoughts, then, move to Tuesday night: the potential make-or-break game against the U.S. Australia's goal difference sits at -1; not an especially comforting stat if you're hoping to be one of the better third-placed teams to make it to the quarterfinal. Does Gustavsson risk fielding the same fatiguing starting XI that showed promise against Sweden and got results against New Zealand? Or does it rotate with fresher players who have not been given much of a look so far this tournament?
A night for the underdog stars
Australia wasn't the only nation to perform surprisingly well on matchday two against opponents many expected to wipe past them; there seems to have been a whole vibe emanating across the entire women's football tournament. Not long before Australia's game with Sweden kicked off, Chile took on dark horses Canada in Group E while Zambia -- in their first ever Olympic appearance -- took on China in Group F. As the Australia game unfolded, the results of both games continued to ping across my timeline.
The first game, Canada against Chile, didn't seem like it would be much on paper, but the South Americans threatened to make things interesting. While a Janine Beckie brace on either side of half-time gave Canada the ultimate win, Chile's Karen Araya kept them guessing just before the hour mark. Chile were also unlucky to not score another. Later in the evening, a Great Britain side positively heaving with stars could only scrape a 1-0 win against a determined Japan side, while European heavyweights Netherlands, at the time of writing, have just clawed their way back to 3-3 after Brazil took a 3-2 lead.
But it was the China vs. Zambia game that was truly one for the ages. The match ended 4-4, with both sides exchanging blows over the course of the 90 minutes. A second consecutive hat trick for Zambia's Barbara Banda, who scored three against Netherlands on the first matchday and also plays her club football in China, was matched only by a double-brace to China's MVP, Wang Shuang.
No player has ever scored more than two hat tricks in the history of the Olympic women's football tournament, and now there are two who are potentially in the running. This is, arguably, one of the most important side effects of the Olympics for women footballers: players from clubs, leagues, and nations who don't get the visibility or platform provided to their more privileged colleagues elsewhere in the world can totally make or break their careers based on how well they perform over these three weeks.
We are all here to witness which nations are at the summit of the women's game, but there's just as much value and interest in the storylines unfolding elsewhere in the global pyramid. The stars of some of the Games' underdog teams is undeniably one.