The Matildas hope to take advantage of North Korean opponents reeling from a doping scandal to kick-start their Olympic qualifying campaign in China this week.
FIFA has thrown the book at North Korea over doping transgressions at this year’s women’s World Cup in Germany, banning five players for up to 18 months, suspending their doctor for six years, fining their association $375,000 and throwing the team out of the 2015 World Cup.
Three of the banned players were in the North Korean squad beaten by Australia in a penalty shoot-out in last year’s Asian Cup final.
“Obviously their preparation might have been a little bit disrupted with the suspensions,” said Australian coach Tom Sermanni.
“But they’re a very resilient team and a very resilient country and this game will be difficult.
“They have an outstanding history in tournaments in Asia – they’ll be here to qualify for the Olympics.”
North Korea’s World Cup expulsion coincidentally smooths Australia’s path into the next tournament in Canada, but it’s the hectic Olympic qualifying tournament that is the sole focus of Sermanni’s squad this week.
The Matildas face five opponents in 11 days as they seek a top-two finish in Jinan, China.
“Technically, it’s the same number of games that we played at the Asian Cup, if you include the semi-final and the final,” said Australian captain Melissa Barbieri.
“So it’s not an undoable task.
They must book their ticket to London’s 2012 Olympics without striker Sam Kerr, scorer of their only goal in normal time in the dramatic 2010 Asian final victory over North Korea.
Kerr suffered a serious knee injury in training and has been replaced in the 20-strong squad by Canberra United and Illawarra Stingrays striker Michelle Heyman.
“Michelle was the ideal person to come into the squad,” said Sermanni.
“She has great pace, flexibility and size which I think will really suit this tournament, and comes in as a bit of a like-for-like for Sam Kerr.”
The desire to compete in London is a big motivator for the Matildas after they missed out on a place at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“The task of five games in 11 days scares me,” said World Cup All-Star Elise Kellond-Knight.
“But we’ve shown our never-say-die attitude before and I think it will shine through.
“No matter how tired we are feeling, our team always manages to find something extra and, hopefully, that will help us get to the Olympics.”
Sermanni expects a difficult tournament.
“There are a lot of tough teams, a lot of tough games, and it could be last team standing,” he said.
by Buford Balony