ANGE Postecoglou has challenged Matthew Spiranovic to try to find a higher level to play his club football at.
But such is his importance to the Socceroos fold, the Huangzhou centre-back has been recalled to the Australian camp even though he plays his football in China's second tier.
Despite not-so-subtle hints from Postecoglou that the 29-year-old could be pushing himself to seek a more challenging club career, the former Western Sydney Wanderers defender defended his decision to remain in China after his club's relegation.
Last week, Postecoglou said: "Good to have him available - prefer if he's playing at a higher level.
"But he's playing regularly, he's an experienced player, we know he can play in this level, (let's) see how he stacks up against the other guys playing recently.
"Hopefully he comes in in good condition and presses for a spot. From our perspective, the guys who have got us to this spot are key to us over the next couple of games.”
Speaking on Tuesday in Tokyo, Spiranovic said: "For me, the most important thing has always been about playing games, being fit and well.
"I've found throughout my career that if I'm playing regularly then I can perform at my highest level.
"That was my main focus and then obviously it's up to the coach to determine if that's at a high enough level to be involved here.
"Once again, I'm grateful for the opportunity and I'm confident I can do a job.”
When asked about the implications of Postecoglou's public comments, he added: "Of course, you always want to be striving to play at the top level, but then we've seen on occasions when players have gone to big leagues and have lacked the game time and match fitness.
"It's an interesting one. I can only comment for myself, playing regularly and feeling fit and well - that's the positive I'm taking out of it.
"Obviously the financial aspect is important for any player but ultimately, like I said, I made a decision to go to the club and I'm happy at the club, they've looked after me, I've captained the team. I'm happy to be there.”
It is an interesting point to be returning, as well, with Spiranovic finally fully fit after a knock to the quad in March curtailed his 2017, requiring two months to resolve.
Lauded as one of Australia's most talented defenders since being blooded by Pim Verbeek in the international arena, Spiranovic - a tall, composed defender who is comfortable in possession - has not featured since Postecoglou moved to a three-man defence.
In theory, he bolsters it. Whether the incumbents get first crack is yet to be seen.
"It's never easy being injured and watching from the sidelines, but that's part of the game and you become accustomed to little setbacks,” he said.
"You've got to fight your way back.
"But like I said, it's nice to be here now.
"It's been good, it's been interesting, you've seen the progression over the last few games and a standout performance against Chile.
"So you can see that the team is taking on board the information and have started to show a lot of positive signs playing in that system and formation.”
Spiranovic argued that game time was his most valued confidence boost when heading into the international arena, but also suggested that playing in the second tier of Chinese football was not detrimental to his career.
The defender, who has also played in Qatar and Japan after coming through the ranks in Nurnberg in Germany, has a year left still on his contract and was adamant that respecting that deal was the right thing to do this season.
"I always had intentions of fulfilling my contract,” he said.
"I was captain the club and the club showed a lot of faith and belief in me.
"Ultimately if there was an outcome that would be suitable for both the club and myself then potentially something could have come of it, but as it turned out we're forging ahead together and I'm happy, I'm happy at the club.”
Spiranovic has watched the rampant investment in Chinese football first-hand and admits it is an exciting time to be involved. The focus on signing attacking players means a central defender's game continues to be tested, while he feels Paulinho's return to Barcelona from Guangzhou Evergrande is a reflection of the growing focus on the Chinese Super League.
"From my point of view, being a defender, I'm still tested week in, week out,” he said.
"The teams are spending money on the attacking third of the pitch and I feel like I am getting tested each week.
"So in that sense it does give me confidence coming into the national team and playing against the quality that we'll face in the next few games.
"You have to look at Chinese football at the moment. A great example would be the Paulinho deal, to come from Tottenham to Evergande and then be sold for $40 million, I think that speaks a lot for what China can potentially bring.
"The investment just in Chinese football in general, at all levels, you can definitely sense it and feel it. In the second division there are some very ambitious clubs, firstly striving to get promoted but also striving to make an impact in the first division.
"You've seen teams do that now that have been recently promoted. There is that buzz, definitely - it's exciting times. With China, you never know what's around the corner.”
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