Graham Arnold is set to ring the changes for Tuesday night’s rematch with Ecuador in Melbourne, with the man who looms as Australia’s next English Premier League star to be unleashed from the beginning.
While Leicester City’s Harry Souttar – the only Socceroo currently in the English top-flight – has been sent home early with injury, Arnold has confirmed his touring roommate Riley McGree will play his first game in green and gold since last year’s World Cup.
Jackson Irvine, Graham Arnold, Aziz Behich and Bailey Wright at Federation Square.Credit:Getty
The 24-year-old missed Friday night’s 3-1 win over the South Americans in Sydney due to illness, but has recovered swiftly and will be one of five or six changes Arnold plans to make to provide the Socceroos with fresh legs to combat a tight turnaround between friendlies.
McGree started all four matches for the Socceroos in Qatar and has taken his game to a new level over the last few months, playing an instrumental role in Middlesbrough’s push for promotion to the Premier League.
Handed a freewheeling attacking role by manager Michael Carrick, the former Manchester United legend, McGree has hit the best form of his life, scoring three times since the mid-season World Cup break to help take Boro to within touching distance of the automatic promotion spots.
They now sit in third place on the English Championship ladder, three points adrift of second-placed Sheffield United with eight games left to play.
“He will start. I can’t wait, because he’s been in unbelievable form for Middlesbrough,” Arnold said.
“[They’re] on the edge of, hopefully, promotion, to give us another English Premier League player. But Riley’s form has just been incredible. I think if you asked him two years ago, when we went to the Olympics, he would have questioned whether he belonged on that stage.
“But the more you do it, the more you believe. He honestly now believes he belongs at the top. Physically, his body’s changed completely, he’s much more an athlete because he’s playing much more. Technically, he’s so much better because he’s doing it more, every day. And mentally, he believes so much more in himself, and that’s a massive thing.”
Arnold also revealed Bailey Wright will come into the heart of defence for Souttar, who has flown back to England to recover with his club after picking up a minor ankle knock against Ecuador on Friday night.
Melbourne City’s Jordan Bos and St Pauli’s Connor Metcalfe loom as other likely inclusions for the Socceroos, but Arnold continued to play coy on the prospects of Adelaide United sensation Nestory Irankunda, 17, who is in line to become Australia’s youngest-ever player if he features at Marvel Stadium.
“We’ll see,” is all Arnold would offer on the teen winger’s prospects of game time.
Meanwhile, born-and-raised Melburnians like Wright and Jackson Irvine are hoping for a bumper turnout after watching the way the city rallied around the team during their campaign in Qatar.
Speaking to media at Federation Square, where thousands gathered in the dead of night last November to watch Australia’s matches, they even spotted scorch marks on the roof of the stage from the many flares that the most diehard fans were wielding.
“One of the highlights of the whole experience for us was seeing the scenes at home and here in particular for us Melbourne boys,” Irvine said.
“Hoping that we get a similar reception tomorrow night at Marvel. It’s great to be back and it’s a bit surreal, obviously, standing here and seeing flare burn marks in the ceiling. It was absolutely incredible.”
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