Just one day to go until Socceroos coach Graham Arnold reveals his 26-man World Cup squad (Tuesday at 4 p.m. list).
Right-back Ryan Strain had never scored a professional goal, but he broke that duck in style with a sublime free kick for St Mirren in Scotland.
Strain got past the goalkeeper on a nearly 30-yard attempt to level the score at 1-1 against Ross County, before his team fell 3-2. Remarkably, his goal follows in the footsteps of grandfather Gerry Baker, who is in the St Mirren Hall of Fame after scoring 66 times in 81 games for the club, including the 1959 Scottish Cup Final when St Mirren beat Aberdeen.
The 25-year-old made his debut for the Socceroos in September, and the right-back position was one of Graham Arnold’s biggest headaches.
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Nathaniel Atkinson (five games) and Fran Karacic (11) have been the preferred options over the past year, but both are recovering from recent injuries. Taking both could be seen as too risky, especially when Strain is in the shape of his life and has logged far more minutes (15 games, 13 starts) than either of his contenders.
Karacic, who plays for Brescia in Italy’s second tier, missed four weeks in October with a hamstring injury but has now played back-to-back 90-minute efforts and is up for selection.
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Atkinson, who ply his trade with Hearts in Scotland, recently suffered an ankle injury that left him in a moon boot and crutches and left him deeply concerned that his World Cup dream was over.
“At that time, yes. It was excruciating pain,” he said, according to the Scotsman. “I did this injury four years ago, so that stirred it up, all the scar tissue and stuff. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not an injury that takes a long time to settle. He settled down. I know I’m going to play through pain, but I’ve done it before.
“I spent a couple of sleepless nights waiting for my scan results to come back. It took a while and it’s hard. I experienced it almost two years ago before the Olympics. I had a serious hamstring injury and was out for 14 weeks. I just got back the week before and went to the Olympics the week after. It gives you something to work for.
“You get that ray of hope that you can go back in time. That gives you motivation to do everything you can to get back into the team. A weight was lifted off my shoulders when I knew I could go back to the World Cup. Coming back to the Hearts team in a European match and scoring a goal is good for me and definitely gives me a confidence boost.”
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Atkinson returned to action on Thursday, playing the full 90 minutes and scoring a consolation goal against Istanbul Basaksehir in the Europa Conference League. He added a quarter of an hour off the bench overnight against Motherwell, and he hopes it will be enough to convince Arnold that he will be ready for Qatar.
Center back Kye Rowles, who came off the bench in added time of the 3-2 win over Motherwell, also returned from injury with Hearts. It was the 24-year-old’s first appearance since August 28, when he broke his metatarsal (foot).
“It was great to be back with all the guys,” Rowles told Hearts TV.
“I was lucky enough to get out there and put in a little bit of effort to get us over the line.”
Rowles is undoubtedly one of Arnold’s strongest options at centre-back after his standout performances in the World Cup play-offs, but he will arrive in Qatar with some precious minutes under his belt. Hearts play two matches this week, Thursday and Sunday mornings, before the World Cup break, with Rowles desperate to get as many match minutes as possible.
In top form, Australia’s strongest center back pairing would see Rowles alongside Harry Souttar. But there are also question marks over the towering 24-year-old, who hasn’t played a senior game in a year after tearing his ACL while on duty with the Socceroos last November.
Souttar was named in the Stoke squad but was an unused substitute in a 2–0 loss to Birmingham, the first time he had been in a one-day squad for 12 months. He has made four appearances for Stoke City’s Under-21 side in Division 2 of the Premier League 2, but this week it looks like he will play for the senior team for the first time in a big boost to his chances of playing in Qatar.
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“Harry has spent 12 months in rehab, he has played four (21s) games,” Stoke manager Alex Neil said.
“There will come a point where you have to take the next step. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great next step.
“If, for example, it starts on Tuesday, I’m not sure if it’s going to happen or not, coming into a game where our form at home has been bad, looking for a result and playing against a team that has two strikers out of six. feet three. .”
Stoke face championship rivals Luton Town on Wednesday morning AEDT and then West Brom on Sunday morning – two final chances to book their place on the plane.
“He’s not playing all 21 next week, no,” Neil said over the weekend.
“I will have to assess where we are with the team and who is fit and available, who is tired.
Arnold is likely to name five central defenders, increasing the likelihood that he will take a chance by drafting both Souttar and Rowles despite their lack of minutes. Starting both, particularly against France in the opening game, would be an even bigger risk.
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Jamie Maclaren scored a brace for Melbourne City, while team-mates Mat Leckie and Marco Tilio also had standout games, with both scoring, to increase the chances of all three playing in Qatar. Tilio is fighting for one of the last attacking positions with 18-year-old rising star Garang Kuol, who also had a breakout weekend with a couple of assists for the Central Coast Mariners. However, Kuol’s teammate Jason Cummings missed a couple of good scoring opportunities, and it could cost him dearly.
Meanwhile, Craig Goodwin increased his chances considerably with a brilliant performance for his Adelaide United side, providing an assist from a corner before scoring an own goal in a 4-2 victory over Western United.
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