Matildas coach Alen Stajcic: Asian Cup is what we've been building for
It's go-time for the Matildas at the Asian Cup.
The team knows it. Coach Alen Stajcic knows it. And the stakes demand it.
Australia's national women's football team begins the continental championship early Sunday morning (AEST) against South Korea.
And no matter how many records they've broken under Stajcic's impressive tenure, it all comes down to this.
"It's a grand final for us," Stajcic told AAP.
The much-admired coach returns to the Asian Cup -- his first tournament as Matildas boss back in 2014 -- having transformed the national team's fortunes and stature.
The Matildas aren't ignored battlers any more. They're admired professionals.
Sam Kerr isn't a promising talent, she's a superstar.
Lisa De Vanna has kept on scoring for Australia, befitting her regular Tim Cahill comparison.
Katrina Gorry and Emily Van Egmond have become the basis of a world-class midfield.
And Lydia Williams, Steph Catley and Clare Polkinghorne are defensive dynamos.
They've all arrived at the first of three tournaments earmarked by Stajcic they want to win -- ahead of next year's World Cup and the 2020 Olympics.
"This is what we've been building for," he said.
"They've set the expectations for themselves. This is one of the tournaments that stuck out for all of us as one of them we want to do well at.
"And they know what's coming and what to expect."
Australia face South Korea, Vietnam and reigning champions Japan in the group stage.
Progression as one of the top two sides would seal a place at next year's World Cup in France, underlining the importance of this tournament.
If not, a third-place finish would pit Stajcic's side against another third-place finisher -- Jordan, Thailand, China or The Philippines -- in a playoff for the final Asian place.
It's a nightmare scenario that the Matildas are keen to avoid, and should.
"We need hit the ground running against South Korea," Stajcic said.
"We haven't even talked about game two or three. If we can get three points there, it will serve us well for the group phase and tournament."
If there's a concern, aside from the tough group, it's the fitness of several key individuals.
Catley and attacking trio Kyah Simon, Hayley Raso and Emily Gielnik haven't played since the end of the W-League season.
Stajcic said Monday was the first day the full squad had been able to train together.
With so much talent in the ranks, it's difficult to see Australia not contending for the title.
After four years spent moulding them into the world No. 6s, Stajcic says planning his team-talk has been easy.
"With the experience they've gained over the last three or four years, the confidence and self-belief, my messaging is about putting it all together into the first game."