BRISBANE, Australia (AFP) – Inspirational captain Mile Jedinak is set to return for Australia as the Socceroos and undefeated China battle for a place in the semi-finals of the Asian Cup on Thursday.
The Crystal Palace midfielder was injured in Australia’s opening Group A win against Kuwait, and sat out the 4-0 drubbing of Oman and Saturday’s narrow loss to South Korea.
“Mile trained this morning, he’ll be right for Thursday – he’ll be fine,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said earlier this week of the player nicknamed “Jedi”.
Jedinak’s return from an ankle injury is a massive boost for Postecoglou, who is expected to return to his first-choice attack of record scorer Tim Cahill and Bayer Leverkusen forward Robbie Kruse.
Postecoglou rued the decision to bench Cahill, Kruse and striker Mathew Leckie for their game against the Koreans when Australia lost 1-0, leaving them with a quarter-final in hot, humid Brisbane and a potential semi against holders Japan in Newcastle.
The stakes are high on Thursday, with defeat likely to set back Australia’s push to popularise football in a country traditionally focused on rugby, cricket and Australian rules.
China, like Australia, have never won the Asian Cup and they are seeking a title which would finally put football’s “sleeping giant” at the top of the regional pecking order.
The Socceroos won’t be at full strength and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors defender Alex Wilkinson is expected to replace suspended centre-back Matthew Spiranovic.
They must now overcome a China side that has enjoyed its best ever start to the Asian Cup, winning all three group matches for the first time.
China boss Alain Perrin is sweating on the fitness of his own captain, Zheng Zhi, after the skipper was substituted complaining of back pain in Sunday’s 2-1 win over North Korea in Canberra.
The 2013 Asian player of the year is one of China’s most successful footballing exports and the 34-year-old lynchpin is seen as crucial to his side’s chances of winning a first Asian Cup.
China — twice Asian Cup runners-up — finished with a perfect three wins out of three in Group B, two of them in Brisbane, and largely thanks to the goals of Sun Ke.
The winger has netted three times, including a spectacular winner against Uzbekistan, and he said China were fully focused for the quarter-final.
“Of course Australia are a very strong team and this time they are the hosts,” Sun said. “I’m sure the next match will be very difficult for us.
“But we just need to do what we should do. I think if we can focus on the game, and keep our concentration to make sure we pay attention to every detail, I think we can leave the pitch having performed well,” he added.
Perrin has warned his players to expect a backlash from the Socceroos after their Korean defeat, and he also complained the schedule may hamper China’s chances.
“We have one day less recovery time than Australia,” said the Frenchman.