FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan chooses five Socceroos that will be crucial to Australia’s prospects at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Australia are preparing for their fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup appearance this summer, but they sure did not do it the easy way this time around.
A total of 22 games – combining for just under 250,000 kilometres in distance travelled – had to be negotiated, from their opening second round tie in Asian qualifying against Kyrgyzstan to the second leg of the inter-confederation playoff against Honduras.
But, having gone through an arduous journey to reach Russia, the Socceroos have been handed a fairly kind path to the knockout round, being drawn against France, Peru and Denmark in Group C.
Who will need to be on form if Australia are to have a chance of progressing from the group stage? FOX Sports Asia picks out five key men from Bert van Marwijk’s 23-man squad.
Who else to begin with other than the man who will be tasked to keep out the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba?
Still only 26, Mathew Ryan already has top-flight experience in two of Europe’s biggest leagues – first in Spain with Valencia and now with Brighton in the Premier League.
His emergence ensured the Socceroos had a smooth transition from former No. 1 Mark Schwarzer and, while he is not the tallest of goalkeepers, Ryan more than makes up for it with his agility, reflexes and shot-stopping ability.
Trent Sainsbury’s career may not have developed quite in the way many expected after he came onto the scene as a confident, ball-playing centre-back for Central Coast Mariners.
Still contracted to Chinese Super League outfit Jiangsu Suning, the 26-year-old has more recently spent time on loan at Inter Milan and Grasshoppers and has not enjoyed as much game time as one would expect heading into a World Cup.
Nonetheless, Sainsburg continues to be held in high regard in the Australia camp and being handed the captaincy in their 4-0 friendly win over Czech Republic was a sure sign of his importance to the team, especially one lacking in quality options in central defence.
Needless to say, if Aaron Mooy gets going, chances are the Socceroos also get going.
Mooy’s career has been on an upward trajectory since he was part of the Western Sydney Wanderers side that won the A-League in their first year of existence, and is currently gracing the top flight of English football with Huddersfield.
Despite his creative nature, the Sydney native never shies away from helping out with defensive duties but is most important to the Socceroos in his ability to get attacks going.
While Australia has been synonymous with physically-imposing target men such as Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill, they also have historically had an abundance of mobile, technically-gifted forwards in the Harry Kewell mould performing that support role.
In recent times, Robbie Kruse has taken on that mantle but 2018 could just see Mathew Leckie come to the fore.
Having been based in Germany since 2011, Leckie is now an established name in the Bundesliga and recently gave a reminder of what he can offer on the international stage, netting two goals in Australia’s 4-0 friendly win over Czech Republic.
He is by no means the most famous name in the Socceroos squad, but there is every chance Andrew Nabbout could play an integral role for them at Russia 2018.
Although – on paper – Tim Cahill remains Australia’s best avenue to goals, he is now 38 and has not exactly had plenty of match practice recently, but he could still prove to be an excellent weapon to call upon from the bench.
This will, however, leave a void to fill and although Nabbout is not the most fashionable of strikers, his selflessness, direct running and eye for goal could just make him the perfect candidate to toil up front and bring the likes of Leckie, Kruse and Tom Rogic into the game.