May 30, 2023

Australia defender Harry Souttar said he is “feeling great” as he looks to mark his return from an ACL injury in the Socceroos opening FIFA World Cup game against France, but attackers Martin Boyle and Ajdin Hrustic are in a race against time to prove their fitness.

Eligible to represent Australia thanks to a Port Hedland-born mother, Scottish-born Souttar, 24, established himself as a mainstay in the Socceroos’ starting lineup during World Cup qualification but ruptured his ACL while representing the Socceroos in a qualifier in November last year.

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Reportedly being targeted as a January transfer addition by Premier League sides Spurs and Everton at the time of the injury, the defender has instead spent the past 12 months in a race against time to rehab in time for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

After two appearances with Stoke’s U21s, he made his return to the Championship club’s senior side in a 2-0 win over Luton Town on Nov. 8, putting in a 90-minute shift a day after he was named as a member of Graham Arnold’s 26-player squad for Qatar.

That fixture, however, represents the only senior minutes the towering defender has logged since his devastating knee injury, leading to questions as to if he would be able to start in the heart of Australia’s defence against Les Bleus next Tuesday.

And even if he’s physically capable, being able to start and being able to defend the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Karim Benzema, and Kylian Mbappe.

“I feel really good. It was a long 12 months trying to get back fit but fitness-wise, I feel great,” Souttar said.

“Just absolutely delighted to be part of the squad. As the months went by, it was November and I wasn’t sure if I was going to get there or not. So to get the final call was a proud moment.

“Make no bones about it, [France is] going to be a really tough challenge. We know they’re going to be a really good team.

“In terms of myself, to be ready, fitness wise I feel great and mentally I feel really strong as well.”

Souttar scored six goals for Australia during World Cup qualification against Taiwan, Nepal, and Jordan.

France proving vulnerable against set pieces in recent times has raised hope amongst Socceroo fans that Souttar’s towering presence might prove their avenue to goals next Tuesday.

“A lot gets made of my height and set pieces and we know the game’s not just about nice football; plenty of goals are scored from set pieces,” he said.

“So if that’s a weapon we use then fair enough. [My goals] were scored in the first qualification stage so it would be nice to score a few more.”

But while the signs are promising for Souttar’s chances of starting against France, Boyle and Hrustic remain tenuous.

The duo were again absent from the main group during the 15 minutes that media was allowed to observe on Saturday evening, with the pair instead on a secondary pitch performing individual work.

Coach Arnold has until 24 hours before the France fixture to replace any injured players with stand-by player Marco Tilio should they prove unable to play.

There is also the option to keep them in the squad even if unable to feature on Tuesday in the hope they will be ready for subsequent fixtures against Tunisia and Denmark.

Souttar, though, was keeping the faith on Boyle.

“Obviously, he’s had a little setback but in terms of what he’s doing I think he’s looking good and it’s just a matter of time, I think, until he’s there,” he said.

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