The Australian Olympic Women's Football Team kicked off their Athens 2004 Olympic Games campaign with a battling 1-0 loss to 6th-ranked Brazil in Thessaloniki in the early hours of this morning Australian time.
Australia defended stoutly, their new 4-5-1 formation effectively thwarting the colourful attacking flair of the Brazilians in the first half, but were unable to create enough clear-cut opportunities for themselves in the process. Lone striker Sarah Walsh worked hard, but on the break couldn't crack the Brazilian backline.
Neither side was able to claim full control of the play, unable to hold onto possession for any length of time. But it was Brazil who proved the more enterprising, and although frustrated by the Australians' close attention and physical play, were able to create the greater chances on goal. The Aussie defence was kept busy and held out well with great determination.
Brazil took the deserved lead nine minutes before half-time through star striker Marta, and were able to hang on for the victory despite the valiant efforts of an Australian attack which was boosted by the introduction of second striker Lisa De Vanna early in the second half.
After several early half-chances were cleaned up by the defence, Brazil produced their first shot of the game in the 16th minute, Formiga's attempt stopped by goalkeeper Cassandra Kell. A minute later, a Pretinha strike found a similar fate.
Australia was more reliant on the long ball or the quick break to push forward in attack, and in the 24th minute, the pacy Walsh showed great skill to move in on goal but in the end was outnumbered by a trio of defenders. Soon after, Brazilian Rosana muffed her shot by hitting straight to Kell, before Walsh was in again in the 31st minute. The Australian got past her opponent but the danger was cleared, Walsh claiming a foul by Tania but her protests went unheeded.
Substitute Grazielle came close for Brazil in the 35th minute, racing in unmarked for a solid header, but the shot flew wide. A minute later, came what turned out to be the winning goal, Marta living up to her star billing in fantastic style, first cutting inside her Australian opponent before making no mistake with the finish.
Three minutes later, an Australian through-ball set up Walsh, but with more time than she realised, her quick attempt to bend the ball in went over the crossbar. At the other end, Formiga's silky skills set up Daniela, but her effort flew high.
Twelve minutes into the second half, livewire De Vanna came in off the bench and immediately injected an added dimension to the Australian attack, helping to set up a chance for Heather Garriock, but her curling strike was saved by Andreia. Shortly after, De Vanna, of part Brazilian heritage, caused more headaches for the Brazilian defence and won a couple of freekicks, but the chances could not be converted.
Brazil still kept the Australians busy, and midway through the half, Brazil's Pretinha was denied with a fantastic save by Kell, raking out the ball from behind her body to keep the Australians in the game. In the 75th minute, Australia were relieved to escape after some sloppy play at the back saw Marta race in and steal the ball, but Kell was able to position herself in time.
Australia continued in their search for the equaliser in what was a more even half. A freekick in the 88th minute was sent high and long in towards goal but De Vanna, from the angle, miscued her shot. The ball quickly found its way up to the other end, and a defensive misunderstanding caused some heart flutters for the Australians. Well into stoppage time, Brazil had another great chance to score a second, but Pretinha missed an open goal.
Midfielder Heather Garriock celebrated her 50th cap in this game, the 21-year-old remarkably reaching the milestone after playing in every single Australian match since making her debut in October 1999, apart from the three tournaments for which she was not selected.
Sixteen-year-old Sally Shipard, the youngest footballer of any team at the Athens Olympics, was rewarded for her recent form with a starting berth. Today was only her second A-international appearance.
In the other Group G match, favourites USA secured a comfortable 3-0 victory over hosts Greece in Heraklion with first half goals to Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach, followed by a late strike by Mia Hamm.
World number one Germany caused a boilover with the size of their victory over 5th-ranked China in the Group F clash in Patras, the 8-0 thumping including a haul of four goals by star striker Birgit Prinz. Leading by two at the break, the world champions showed no mercy in the second half to run away with the match. Japan also made the headlines with a major upset over 2003 Women's World Cup runners-up Sweden, their first half strike proving enough to top Group E with a 1-0 victory in Volos.
Australia now travel to Heraklion on the island of Crete in readiness for what is now a crucial game against hosts Greece on Saturday, a match which both teams will be out to win if they are to advance through to the quarterfinals.