Australia coach Tony Gustavsson has defended his training methods and squad selection as an injury crisis hangs over the national team ahead of their 2023 Women’s World Cup clash with Nigeria in Brisbane on Thursday.
Attacking trio Sam Kerr, Mary Fowler and Kyah Simon are all unavailable for the Matildas’ second match, as is defensive stalwart Aivi Luik, while midfielder Tameka Yallop is expected to only play limited minutes as she returns from a thigh injury.
“Sometimes you’re unlucky and you need to deal with the cards you are handed,” said Gustavsson. “We’re ready to play those cards. We have a lot of attacking options still in the roster, but this team has also showed that we’re adaptable.
“We might have a different profile of player, but we’re still going to have the same identity. We might have a different formation, but we’re still going to have the same identity.”
Fowler and Luik were ruled out on Wednesday due to mild concussions suffered training, with Football Australia’s concussion protocols requiring that players sit out for six days post-incident. Kerr suffered a calf injury last week, while Simon is returning from a long-term ACL injury.
“When it’s concussion protocol as a coach, you have to have the biggest respect for player health – if a player is ruled out, they’re ruled out,” said Gustavsson. “When it comes to the training, I totally understand, if you didn’t see the training, if I were you sitting out there, I would go ‘what the heck is happening in trainings?’ Two concussions in one training, two days out from the game. But it was completely normal training.”
Gustavsson said that the incidents occurred separately, and that there were no ongoing concerns. “We were unlucky,” he said. Both players attended training on Wednesday and Fowler undertook light training duties. “Two separate incidents – it’s a bit unreal to be honest. I never experienced anything like it,” he said.
Gustavsson said he was unable to provide a further update on the status of captain Kerr.
“We want to show a tremendous amount of respect to our fans out there, because they have been massive in terms of supporting us,” he said. “We want to be in this together. But I also know that the fans want the best for the team, and the best for the team is to focus on the game tomorrow with the players that are available.
“We have been as open as we can be to say it is a calf injury that is going to be reassessed after the Nigeria game. Me personally, I don’t know more than that as of now – I am just focusing on the players I have available for tomorrow, and I know that’s how Sam wants it as well.”
Gustavsson said that the team would give Kerr every opportunity to play in the final group match against Canada. “Most likely we won’t be able to give an answer on [Kerr’s status] until the day before the game,” he said. “We want to wait until the last minute to see where she’s at in terms of availability.”
Matildas wing-back Steph Catley, elevated to captain in Kerr’s absence, insisted that morale was high in the camp despite the injury set-backs. “It’s football,” she said. “It happens to every single footballer on the entire planet. We’re not the first team that’s had injuries in major tournaments and we won’t be the last.”
Gustavsson also defended the selection of Simon, who is not expected to return to action until later in the tournament. “I’m never going to regret picking Kyah,” the Swedish coach said. “I picked her for different reasons. One was we knew she was going to have limited minutes but her game changing quality was what we picked her for.”
Gustavsson also cited Simon’s contribution to the team culture and her penalty-taking ability. “We knew it was a risk,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Nigeria’s coach Randy Waldrum denied that the Matildas’ injury woes would prompt any deviations to his game plan.
“We never like to see players injured, I know how devastating that is – missing matches at the World Cup,” said the American. “But I don’t think it changes our tactic and what we’re trying to do. They obviously still have a lot of weapons that can hurt you. I know for them they may feel somewhat of a challenge, but for us we know the strength of their team.”
If the Matildas win on Thursday, it will guarantee progression to the round of 16. Anything less would see the Australians travel to Melbourne with all to play for in their final group stage encounter, against Canada on Monday.
“This group is just so difficult,” said the Nigeria coach. “On a given day, anybody could make anything happen. It’s just an extremely difficult group.”