If he can maintain his current form Trent Sainsbury says he should be in the starting XI for the Socceroos’ Asian Cup opener, writes BEN SOMERFORD and JOHN DAVIDSON.
The central defender is enjoying an excellent run of form in the PEC Zwolle first team in the Netherlands, which bodes well leading into the January tournament.
It’s especially promising for Socceroos supporters given Australia’s defensive woes, conceding 22 goals in the past 11 matches.
His recent international experience, combined with his club form, has Sainsbury optimistic about his Asian Cup prospects.
“If I can keep my form going I can’t see why I shouldn’t be starting in that team,” Sainsbury told FourFourTwo.
“But to make the squad would be a huge achievement.”
Sainsbury is battling with Alex Wilkinson and Nikolai Topor-Stanley to win the right to partner Matt Spiranovic in the centre of defence come Australia’s cup opener against Kuwait in Melbourne on January 9.
The four-times capped youngster admitted to having a sleepless night prior to his international debut against 2014 World Cup quarter-finalists Belgium in September, but said he felt the most comfortable he has yet at the elite level in last month’s friendly in Japan.
In fact, he laughed "my sleep before the Japan game was quite nice actually".
Now in the box set to make Ange Postecoglou’s squad, the former Central Coast Mariner is not looking too far ahead given recent history.
The 22-year-old missed the World Cup in Brazil after a freak accident on his PEC Zwolle debut in February, when he fractured his kneecap on a sprinkler, keeping him out of action for five months.
All up he has made 15 appearances for his Eredivisie club and admits it was tough going initially.
“I think I’m only really starting to get settled now,” he said.
“After the injury, obviously it was a major setback, I’m starting to be happy about the way I’ve been playing and again I’ve just got to find that consistency week-to-week to get back to my best.
“I was out for five months – that’s the longest I’m ever been out with injury. It was hard to deal with. People always say you don’t know what you’re made of until you’ve had a bad injury, you don’t know the desperate times.
“Until you’ve actually had an injury like that you’ve got it so lucky. It wasn’t pleasant but at the same time it did give me time to work on other attributes like getting my body right, strength-wise, and try to compete with the bigger boys.
“You can’t look back on that (missing the World Cup) now, you just have to look forward. Look to the good times ahead.”
A metatarsal stress fracture to 35-year-old centre-half Joost Broerse in November has opened the door for the Australian who started the past five matches for PEC Zwolle.
Taking on the likes of Feyenoord’s Colin Kazim-Richards, Ajax’s Lasse Schone and Davy Klaassen and Twente’s Jesus Corona will prepare him well for the Asian Cup.
He admits to still pinching himself about lining up against such players week-in week-out.
“The coach said to me the other day that I’m finally getting to the form which prompted him to buy me,” Sainsbury revealed.
“If I can keep getting games under my belt, the happier I am. You’re always happy when you’re playing well and the team is playing well.
“At the moment the biggest challenge for me would be consistency.
“I’ve had a few good games here and there, but I’d like to turn that into solid games every week, just to help my team out and myself out.
“It does knock you about when you have a bad game here or there, you have to pick yourself up.”
Broerse is expected to be back in selection contention come February, shortly after the Asian Cup, a situation that potentially threatens Sainsbury first-team chances.
“To be honest, I’ll just be worrying about my position with the Socceroos,” Sainsbury said.
“I won’t be worrying about going back to PEC Zwolle until the tournament is finished.
“There’s nothing I can do about my place in the Zwolle side, it’s up to my coach.
“I’ve just got to do my best on the training pitch and hopefully they show faith in me and put me straight back in.”
Should he make Postecoglou’s squad Sainsbury will finally get his home international debut.
“To get my first cap was amazing but to play in front of your home crowd, that’s going to be something else,” Sainsbury said.
“Being able to have my friends and family there watching would be a huge boost for me.
“Even if I don’t start, I just want the team to do well because it’d be great for Australian football.”
Sainsbury was part of Socceroo camps under Holger Osieck – who questioned the defender’s attitude – but it was not until Postecoglou’s arrival that he was given an opportunity.
“Against Belgium, that was a different level,” he said.
“Some of the players they had out there were world class. To pit yourself against players of that calibre, it’s something you only dream about and if you want to be the best you have to beat the best. It was really good and good for my learning.
“It was good to finally get out there but I wasn’t going to take anything for granted. Under Holger it was a little bit difficult. With Ange he knew and asked around what my personality is actually like.
“So he had an understanding before I even came into camp what I was going to be like. So it worked out better for myself.”
He said last month’s defeat to Japan was particularly disappointing to take.
“We were more disappointed with that loss than any other, since I’ve been involved anyway, because we played some really good football,” he said.
“We dominated the first half but we just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net and then Japan stepped it up in the second half and we just didn’t match them.
“The two goals showed their class but that was more disappointing for us because we let it slip.”
The centre back is confident that the Socceroos are on the right path and that the defence is coming together.
“Obviously we would have like to have kept more clean sheets than we have, but at international level you make mistakes and you get punished for them,” he said.
“Even though ‘Wilko’ is one of the older boys in the team he’s still learning at this level as well.
“But we’ve played together before (at the Mariners) and struck up a good partnership so I’m hoping we can keep it going and get those clean sheets we so desperately want.
“International level is the highest standard. Obviously people are starting to criticise the boys at the moment for the results, but you can see the way that we’re playing we’re definitely moving towards something bigger and better for Australian football.
“To be part of that is incredible. I just want to be along for the journey as long as I can.”