Australia women's coach Adrian Santrac might be hard pushed to find Östersund on a map. The town of 60,000 lies around five hours' drive from Stockholm in a majestic but isolated location between Storsjön, Sweden's fifth-largest inland sea, and the Jämtland mountains. However, Östersund does have a place in Australian women's football history: seven years and 13 days ago, the town provided the venue for the Matildas' sole victory over Sweden, a 1-0 success in the opening match of a three-week European tour.
Leaving aside a penalty shoot-out at the 1999 Algarve Cup, the Australians have failed to beat the Scandinavians since that day. Four years ago the sides met at the Sydney Olympics but their 1-1 draw helped neither as both exited the tournament with a whimper.
However, history will count for nothing when the two teams meet in this summer's Olympic quarter-finals with the Aussies fired up and raring to go. Santrac's side had lost 16 in a row against the USA before their historic draw a few days ago and the result has filled the team with belief. "We were exceptional, especially in the second half," he declares, reckoning the result was a "just reward" for the players' unstinting effort: "If we play to our full potential against Sweden, we must be in with a chance."
With the group phase out of the way, the coach reckons the knockout stage is a whole new ball game. "It's winner takes all now, the quarter-finals are new territory for us and in the build-up we'll concentrate on the basics. We'll find out everything we can about Sweden, and hopefully that should set us up for the semi-finals," Santrac remarks.
|Australia's Sally Shipard vies the ball against American Shannon Boxx in their women's football first round at the Kaftazoglio Stadium, 17 August 2004 in Thessaloniki during the Olympic Games. AFP PHOTO/STR|
The statistics favour the Europeans: Sweden have won four, drawn two and lost one of the seven meetings thus far. However, the in-form Australians have high hopes of springing a surprise, especially given the Swedes' lacklustre group displays.
Swedish respect for strong opponents
The FIFA Women's World Cup runners-up have been warned. "They have a potent mix of youth and experience, it's obvious they're strong, they drew 1-1 against the USA," comments Sweden coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors. Striker Hanna Ljungberg, appearing at her third Women's Olympic Football Tournament and in much sharper form against Nigeria, issued a warning to her team-mates: "I've not played Australia often over the years, but they've always been good defensively and put out big, physical sides. We definitely have to improve and take more of our chances."
Defender Kristin Bengtsson and playmaker Malin Andersson, both relegated to the substitutes' bench against Nigeria, played alongside Ljungberg at the 1996 event in Atlanta, with a further six of the squad appearing four years ago in Sydney, a reservoir of experience which could yet prove decisive in the Swedes' favour.
Analysing her side's patchy Olympic form, Domanski-Lyfors pointed the finger at a string of injuries which disrupted her preparations over the last few months, "and that's why we haven't started well here," the 44-year-old explained. The coach introduced two new players to the starting line-up against Nigeria: "We needed change after losing our first game."
Sweden remain optimistic despite their average start. "We're very strong mentally, we have the ability to come from behind and win. This team is packed with quality and a good mix of styles, so we can always change things around," Domanski-Lyfors observed. She offered no comment on teen sensation Shiphard: "I honestly can't say very much as I've never seen her play."
The 48 hours before the quarter-final have been set aside for a combination of training and relaxation, including time on the beach and a day-trip to the Pilios mountains, although the squad's focus is firmly on the upcoming task. "After beating Nigeria, we feel we could go all the way," Ljungberg declared. The winners progress to a semi-final meeting with Mexico or Brazil in Patras.