Sayer and Wheeler say there's "good vibes" in camp ahead of Paris 2024 Qualifiers

CommBank Matildas midfielders Amy Sayer and Clare Wheeler spoke on Thursday – matchday minus two - about the team’s preparations for the 2024 AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifying (Round Three).

The team arrived in Dubai on Monday to undergo training in the lead-up to the first leg of the qualification tie, away against Uzbekistan. The winner across two legs will qualify for Paris 2024™.

“The vibe is good,” Sayer said. “We go into every game as though it is 'just' a game. We’re not overcome by the occasion, and I think that since we have had that focus on ourselves, that’s really the only thing that’s been in the forefront of our minds.

“Our principles and tactics that have been set up by the coaching staff have allowed us to keep that focus on ourselves and to know that it’ll play out as it does when the game comes, and I think that we’ll be well prepared for it.”

“Everyone’s super excited to get these qualifiers underway,” Wheeler agreed.

The conditions in Tashkent are predicted to be very cold, with possible snow. Sayer – who is currently playing her club football for Kristianstads DFF in Sweden - explained how those conditions may impact play on Saturday.

Clare Wheeler during Australia's game against England in London. (Photo: Rachel Bach/By The White Line)

“It takes a lot of mental fortitude to push through that [the weather],” she said. “There will be some differences in how the ball rolls, how the field feels to us.

“But I think that the strength of this team is so great. We can really push through any condition, whether it’s two feet of snow or whatever else Uzbekistan might throw at us.”

One of the challenges that Uzbekistan is expected to present is a low, compact block, that will be difficult for the CommBank Matildas attack to break down.

Wheeler explained that the work they were doing in Dubai was to assist the team in overcoming that difficulty.

“In the footage that we’ve seen, we understand they’re well organised and they can be a tough team to break down,” she said. "They also have key players that can hurt us on the transition. So we've been making sure that we’re prepared for that, not only on the ball, but off the ball in all areas. We understand our roles to get the job done.”

The midfielder will play a key part in that ball recovery role for Australia. She has traditionally played in a deeper role, and has even filled in as a wing-back for her club side Everton this season.

“I would consider myself someone who is composed, who likes to win the ball back,” the 26-year-old said. “I think it’s one of my strengths and that’s what transferred me out to playing full-back. “

“Something I take pride in is winning the ball back for my team. I think that’s where I come in. We all have many different strengths and attributes and I think we all complement each other as a team as a whole.”

Amy Sayer during the CommBank Matildas' Olympic Qualifier against IR Iran at HBF Park in Perth. (Photo: Rachel Bach/By The White Line)

For Sayer’s part, while she carries the same positional tag as Wheeler – midfielder – her role will be a vastly different one. She is a much more attacking-minded player and may find herself filling in as center-forward in this series, after Sam Kerr sustained an ACL rupture in January.

She says that she is ready to play her part in filling the gap that the CommBank Matildas captain leaves behind.

“She is one of the best players on our team and she is our captain,” Sayer said, “So I think there’s a gaping hole that’s been left in her absence.

“I know that I play a similar position, and in the past, I have been the substitute for her, in that 9/10 attacking midfield role. I’m not trying to fill her shoes, because she is that special player, but I think I have similar qualities – and some different ones as well – that can help provide a benefit to the team.”

Of course, this international window is the first of 2024, and provides an opportunity for the squad to reflect on what was a ground-breaking 2023 for the CommBank Matildas and women’s football in Australia more generally.

As Melbourne prepares to host the CommBank Matildas at a sold-out Marvel Stadium in the second leg, Wheeler said that the support over the last 12 months has been the highlight for her as a player.

“Just seeing the amount of support for the Matildas and women’s football in general was incredible,” she said. “Just continually selling out stadiums for women’s football is also incredible, and the viewership, and everything around that, it’s amazing.”

“A lot of younger players have been inspired to take up the game and I think that’s wonderful. It’s something that will always stick with me going forward.”

Uzbekistan v Australia
Date: Saturday, 24 February 2024
Kick-off: 2.00pm (local) / 8.00pm AEDT
Venue: Milliy Stadium, Tashkent
Broadcast: Live from 7.00pm AEDT on 10, 10 Play and Paramount+.

Australia v Uzbekistan
Date: Wednesday, 28 February 2024
Kick-off: 8.00pm AEDT
Venue: Marvel Stadium, Melbourne, Victoria
Broadcast: Live from 7.30pm AEDT on 10, 10 Bold in Perth, 10 Play and Paramount+.