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Matildas primed for action as Women's Super League returns from the half-term break

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Alanna Kennedy: Midfield role was key to Spurs move (1:13)

Alanna Kennedy explains how Tottenham Hotspur were able to persuade her to join the club on loan. (1:13)

Ten long months have passed since the Australian women's national team were together on a football pitch. A 2-1 win over Vietnam at Cam Pha Stadium in the coastal province of Quang Ninh in March 2020 secured their spot at the Tokyo Olympics, a tournament which -- theoretically -- is now just six months away from kick-off.

With Australia's players now spread all over the world, and the continuing coronavirus pandemic making the prospect of any camps in the near future a logistical nightmare, quality club football has taken on even greater significance for the Matildas.

While Australia currently has some 24 women sprinkled across the continent, including Ellie Carpenter at French giants Olympique Lyonnais, and Amy Harrison and Kyah Simon at PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, the bulk of the Matildas opted for homes in England's FA Women's Super League.

Border closures in Australia have the W-League scrambling to provide diversity in fixtures, but the league in England seems determined to forge ahead despite an increasing number of positive COVID-19 cases.

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The competition is at the halfway mark and the resumption of play after the winter break provides the first opportunity of the new year to get a read on how the Matildas involved are tracking.

Sam Kerr was the first and only one back in action on the weekend, as her Chelsea side annihilated Reading 5-0 at the Madejski Stadium and, while the Matildas captain was not on the scoresheet, her development as a footballer was clearly evident, turning provider for two of Fran Kirby's four goals.

When Kerr turned her back on a stellar career in the W-League and America's NWSL to pursue a highly paid opportunity with the English champions, the focus was invariably on whether her talents would translate to a new league with a different style of play. Kerr's trademark ability to scythe through opposition defences produced plenty of scoring opportunities, however her poor finishing (by her own lofty standards) in the early rounds, had the critics out in force.

Patient and reassuring, Chelsea boss Emma Hayes could see the bigger picture and has built a superstar squad where Kerr is reaping the benefits of playing in the league's most enviable strike force, scoring eight goals in 13 appearances across all competitions since settling in to Hayes' setup.

With Denmark's Pernille Harder and Lionesses star Kirby to share the goal-scoring burden, aided and abetted by excellent abilities of Erin Cuthbert and Beth England, the Matildas striker is clearly enjoying the freedom from the shackles of responsibility.

The player most likely to offer Kerr that support on the national team front is Arsenal's Caitlin Foord, who is rejuvenated since her arrival in England.

Foord has had a magnificent start to her time at the Gunners and her partnership with Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema is providing a whole new dimension to Joe Montemurro's attack.

Familiar with the utility role, much of Foord's impact has been due to that versatility. With six goals in 10 league matches already, she is equally comfortable on either flank, playing as a No. 9 or even dropping back to full-back when required. Foord's ability to fill the space when Miedema drifts wide keeps defenders wrong-footed and, combined with her ability to hold up the ball and some clinical finishing, has made her two nominations for FA WSL Player of the Month so far this season no surprise.

Foord's Gunners teammate Steph Catley has not enjoyed as much of a positive start to her career in London. Niggling injuries have hampered the defender who when fit, is touted as the best left-back in the world.

- FA Women's Super League Table

A calf injury suffered in preseason has continued to plague Catley and that recurring issue, along with a concussion and most recently a hamstring strain, have seen the defender limited to just 134 minutes in four appearances for the Gunners.

Catley is far from the only Arsenal player to have struggled with injury though. Goalkeeper Lydia Williams also had a stuttering start to life in London when a preseason ankle injury required surgery, keeping her out of the action until matchday 8. However, since then the Matildas shot-stopper has kept two clean sheets in her three appearances.

With Arsenal in third spot, just four points off the lead, the WSL title race will be highly competitive and Williams says the side is refreshed and ready for a solid return.

"It's definitely a much closer and tighter year than previously, both within the team and against the opposition, so the second half is really going to show what we're made of and how we carry ourselves forward," Williams told ESPN.

While Williams has previously said the chance to properly unpack and make a life in one spot was a big part of her decision to join Arsenal, it was the opportunity to play with and against top class European players and learn from their experiences, that was too good to pass up.

Across town, fellow Aussie goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold is getting plenty of that experience, playing every minute of the season so far for West Ham United.

While her side have struggled -- having a leaky defence is keeping Arnold busy and to have her and Williams come up against some of the best strikers in the world on a weekly basis can only be an advantage for the Matildas.

Hammers teammate Emily Van Egmond put pen to paper last week to confirm she too is settled at the club following a loan stint from Orlando Pride. Van Egmond has been excellent since her arrival, scoring five of the clubs total of 13 goals so far this season and it's hoped that her stellar turn in the Hammers midfield will see some reward under new boss, New Zealand's Olli Harder.

Over at Tottenham Hotspur, Van Egmond's former Orlando teammate Alanna Kennedy also celebrated the new year with a new contract, making her move to Spurs a permanent arrangement. Kennedy has made a sparkling start to life with the Lilywhites, not just shoring up the backline but also making an impact further up the park in a defensive midfield role.

In the south-west of the country though, things are not so rosy and one wonders whether a move might be playing on the mind of fellow Matilda, Chloe Logarzo, whose Bristol City side is facing relegation at the end of this season.

Coached by Australian Tanya Oxtoby -- who deserves more credit than the table would suggest after battling funding, COVID and injury issues -- the Robins are still chasing their first win of the season.

Logarzo, who joined compatriot Ella Mastrantonio at the club, is one of the only players Oxtoby was able to add to her roster after the owners indicated their reluctance to provide the women's side with further financial support.

Oxtoby has had a torrid time of it, operating on the smallest budget in the league, she has been left frustrated by the perceived double standards between clubs after Manchester City and Arsenal were granted postponements by the FA due to the effect of COVID-19 on their playing roster.

In early November, with five first team players in isolation, Bristol were forced to field a team largely made up of academy players after requests to postpone their match against Man City were denied. The Robins were subsequently walloped 8-1 and, even more concerning, Oxtoby -- who is pregnant -- tested positive for the coronavirus one week later.

The only other Matilda in the WSL playing outside of London is Hayley Raso, whose time with Everton started in fine form, lining up at Wembley in the Women's FA Cup final.

Yet, while they started the season jockeying for position at the top of the table after four consecutive wins, the Toffees now sit fifth and haven't tasted victory since matchday 4. It's not about to get easier for Raso and Co. ether -- they kick off 2021 with a clash against league leaders Manchester United, who are still unbeaten.

"We got off to an early flying start, played in an FA Cup final and then unfortunately saw a dip in some of our performances before Christmas," Raso told ESPN. "We've had the time off to refresh ourselves and recharge and we are now back on the pitch training well together.

"There's a lot of belief in this group so we are definitely aiming to get back to winning ways and eyeing those top three positions as the place we want to be."

Raso is another who relocated citing the desire for a new football challenge as the main reason, and it's exactly that exposure to a different style of play that former Matilda Alicia Ferguson says will pay huge dividends when the national team is able to regroup.

"Historically we have struggled more with the European teams," London-based Ferguson told ESPN.

"We're okay with sides that play open football but when we come up against a more compact style, we've struggled to break them down.

"It's more tactical here, a slower build up with more touches -- with so many players based over here and [new Matildas boss] Tony [Gustavsson] as well, we will hopefully be able to play more internationals against European sides and really compete with teams that want to keep the ball on the deck."