The battle for arguably the toughest job at the World Cup — stopping France’s star-studded frontline — remains wide open as five Socceroos players vye for two spots.
Central defence looms as one of Graham Arnold’s biggest selection headaches heading into Australia’s Qatar 2022 opener on Wednesday morning (AEDT), with the fitness of first choice stars Harry Souttar and Kyle Rowles complicating matters — though the latter has declared himself ready to go in a potentially-huge boost for the side.
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Souttar and Rowles impressed together during qualifying but both are coming off serious injuries. It could be deemed too great a risk to start both against a possible front three of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, if fit.
Arnold has some quality backup options up his sleeve in Milos Degenek and Bailey Wright, who has recently gained some quality game time in the Championship at Sunderland, with Thomas Deng also able to fill the role.
Wright has provided an insight into the intense battles happening in Australia’s closed-off evening training sessions in Doha.
“Every single one of us right now from every position is fighting for that shirt come the first game against France,” Wright said.
“Obviously I’ll be ready to play if Arnie wans me to. I want that shirt and I’m not the only one that wants that shirt.
“The strength of the group is that we have a real healthy competition for places on the pitch. We’re all mates, we all get along well but we push each other and we all want that shirt. I think that’s the most important thing.
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“… Arnie and the coaching staff know what I can bring to the table. I hope it’s enough. If it’s not I’m here to play my part in the team. I’m not going to throw my toys out of the pram, I’m here to represent my country in numerous ways.”
Rowles, meanwhile, admitted he feared a broken foot suffered in August had ended his World Cup dream. However he insisted a lack of game time since would not stop him delivering his best next week if called upon.
“Obviously it’s not been the perfect run-in for myself, but I know that once I put my head down and get out there I’m not focused on my fitness levels, I’m focused on doing my job for the team,” Hearts defender Rowles said.
“Once you get into the game and you’ve got the likes of Benzema and Mbappe you don’t have time to think about how you’re feeling – you’ve just got to do your job and make sure they’re nullified as best as possible.
“I’m feeling strong anyway, and very fit… and whatever Arnie and the team needs me to do, I’ll be ready to do it.”
There was another boost as towering centre back Souttar trained with the Aussie squad on Thursday as he continues his recovery from a knee injury, although Martin Boyle (knee) and Ajdin Hrustic (ankle) were still missing.
“He’s coming along very well,” Rowles said of Souttar. “He’s obviously got a lot of minutes as well, back at Stoke. He’s looking fit and strong, very sharp as well.”
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NO FRIENDLIES, NO WORRIES?
Socceroos star Fran Karacic has defended Australia’s decision not to play a pre-World Cup friendly as a host of rival nations tune up with matches this week.
Australia will head into next week’s showdown with France having not played a competitive match since the late September friendlies against New Zealand.
Ghana v Switzerland (Abu Dhabi) and Japan v Canada (Dubai) were among the Middle Eastern friendly matches played on Thursday after the likes of Argentina, Croatia, Chile, Poland and Saudi Arabia all had hit-outs a day earlier.
However Karacic, in line to start from Australia at right back, was not concerned despite some suggestions the Socceroos could be underdone heading into such a huge encounter.
“Honestly, we have a big dose of adrenaline already inside of us and everything needs to calm down in the next couple of days so we can be a hundred percent ready for the game (against France),” Karacic said.
“I think doesn’t matter that we don’t play a game, we’ve play between each other and I think that’s enough. And we’ve played all the matches at our clubs. So one week without a match, for me that’s normal.”
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WRIGHT’S MESSAGE TO AUSSIE CRITICS
Wright has spent a decade playing in England and has spoken of the “ongoing battle” faced by Australian football to get the respect of the rest of the footballing world.
Australia is regarded as one of the weakest teams in Qatar but Wright believes a strong performance would go a long way to changing perceptions.
“This is a bit of an ongoing battle for Aussie football for a number of years,” Wright said. ”I think we all know what we’re capable of. The nation and players there have come a long way and I think (the A-League) is a really strong league now and some other countries probably still don’t give it the respect it deserves.
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“We’ve got a strong national team here, players that have played in so many different countries and in so many different journeys to get to where they’ve been to.
“We really do it the hard way to get to where we are and we really feel a sense of responsibility and representing our country and the game in Australia.
“We want to progress the game, we want to change what people believe … and this is definitely something that we’ve been on a journey on for a try and change.”