By Emma Kemp
Sam Kerr appears unlikely to start against Iran and will not play a full 90 minutes in Australia’s three Olympic qualifiers in Perth, with coach Tony Gustavsson citing load management as his captain continues her comeback from the calf injury that cruelled much of her World Cup campaign.
Kerr has been the talk of her home town since she landed in the early hours of Tuesday morning, little over two months after the 30-year-old scored that spectacular goal in the Matildas’ semi-final loss to England in Sydney.
And despite almost the full cohort of World Cup stars on the ground and readying to delight 100,000 spectators across the three fixtures at HBF Park and Optus Stadium, which have all been sold out, every ounce of the attention is on the striker.
“I think all of us would love to play Sam Kerr for 90 minutes every game,” Gustavsson said at a pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday, alongside the coaches of group opponents Iran, the Philippines and Taiwan.
“She would love to play in front of friends and family and kind of say thank you for everything. I would love to play her 90 minutes. I think everyone watching the game would love to see her 90 minutes.
“But we always said we want to have a healthy high-performance culture in here with a player-centric approach. Considering she’s coming back from injury very recently – she hasn’t played 90 minutes in a very, very, very long time. Not for club either, with that calf issue coming back, and we really need to be extremely mindful.”
The Matildas play three games in seven days and, though Kerr is recently back starting with her English Women’s Super League leaders Chelsea, she is not seeing out 90 minutes.
“As I did in the World Cup, and as I said plenty of times, I’m going to go by recommendation of my SSSM [sports science and sports medical] team, who are experts in this field,” Gustavsson said.
“They work very closely with Chelsea as well, because it’s a total load over time, and we all want the team to be informed and play as many minutes as possible for both club and country.
“We can expect to see some rotation in this tournament, so we don’t overload her with minutes. Then it’s up to me to know, when do I get maximum out of those minutes that she has? Is it starting and then taking her off? Is it having her on the bench and taking her on? And how do I plan those three games?”
Gustavsson said he would take a similar approach with other players and “rotate a lot in the roster”, in a departure from his modus operandi at the World Cup, when he was criticised for a lack of rotation.
This time, at least, the pressure is slightly less, given Australia are favourites to win all ties comfortably. But a lot does hinge on the results, which will determine whether the Matildas reach the final phase of qualifying for Paris 2024.
What that means in the immediate future is that the players who arrived in Australia later are less likely to start against Iran, to give them extra time to recover from jet lag.
“Because of the physicality and the wellbeing and the protection of the players, don’t be surprised if you’re going to see much more rotation in the roster this tournament than you did in the World Cup.”