As the Champions League anthem rang out across a packed Mestalla, just prior to Valencia’s crucial first leg UCL qualifier against Monaco, Mat Ryan, Valencia’s goalkeeper, had a look of steely determination emblazoned across his face.

The Australian looked like a man deep in thought about what was to come, a man contemplating the magnitude of the mission he was about to undertake.

Nuno Espirito Santo’s men faced a simple equation – overcome Monaco over two legs and a coveted spot in the group stage of Europe’s premier club competition would be theirs. Defeating this talented Monaco side would obviously be easier said than done, but nonetheless, Valencia were still expected to have the quality to triumph.

On a personal level, Ryan, after a solid preseason, knew he had an unbelievable opportunity to endear himself to his manager and the die-hard home fans.

Valencia’s €7 million signing from Club Brugge did just that, putting in a flawless shift, full of confidence and authority, which, in the process, showed he can unquestionably handle the pressure of performing on the big stage.

While keeping a clean sheet would’ve been a clear objective on his checklist, the fact he didn’t achieve this was through no fault of his own – he could do nothing about Mario Pasalic’s 49th minute goal. It didn’t matter though, for when called upon, Ryan came up big when confronted with potentially game-changing moments.

With Monaco’s wonderfully gifted Portuguese attacker, Bernardo Silva, streaming towards goal down the right, everyone inside the stadium gasped in anticipation when Silva steadied himself to shoot. Silva’s subsequent strike, while brilliant and worthy of finding the back of the net, wasn’t quite good enough to breach the athletic net minder’s guard. Ryan, at full stretch, somehow managed to get his fingertips on the shot, which diverted the ball just enough off its path to see it cannon off the post and away from danger.

Small margins in the art of goalkeeping are what can make one either a hero or a villain, a winner or a loser. Here, on 32 minutes, Ryan’s freakish reactions ensured he came out a hero.

With the Monegasque team pushing hard to equalise with the score at 2-1, Ryan came to the fore again. This time Pasalic would be the man denied, as Ryan’s splendid reflex save made sure the Croatian’s header wouldn’t be afforded the opportunity to find a home in the back of the net.

Throughout the fixture Ryan exuded confidence, calmness and composure, dealing with crosses, shots and set-pieces expertly. Remaining concentrated, intelligently positioned and having a solid back four in front of him also helped his cause, but considering it was his competitive debut for the Bats, his performance deserved plenty of praise.

Furthermore, the former Central Coast Mariners shot stopper gave the home supporters a glimpse of what a brilliant distributor of the ball he is. On many occasions he sprayed the ball masterfully across the turf, and accurately launched a number of goal kicks as well.

Former Socceroos keeper, Mark Bosnich, who used to play for Manchester United, Chelsea and Aston Villa, was quick to lavish praise upon the 23-year-old following Valencia’s 3-1 victory.

“It’s absolutely fantastic,” said Bosnich.

“I’m delighted for him. He can be anything he wants to be. For him to shine on that stage makes a statement to what he is now and what he can be.

“He’s like having an extra player with his feet, like playing with 11, hopefully Valencia will progress from the qualifying stage and we’ll be watching him in the CL this season.”

Ange Postecoglou, the Australian national team manager, also spoke extremely positively of his star player, saying: “He’s made some really intelligent decisions in terms of his career and he’s backed that up with performances, whether that’s with the national team or at club level.

“He’s consistently been the best in his trade wherever he’s played, whether that’s in the A-League or in Belgium. He deserves this opportunity now.”

Ryan’s rise from living in a caravan while playing for the Central Coast Mariners to plying his trade for one of Spain’s finest clubs is nothing short of spectacular. Since leaving Australia for Belgium, two and a half years ago, his tremendous form for Club Brugge propelled him to take home back-to-back Jupiler League goalkeeper of the year awards.

As a consequence of his magnificent showings, a host of European football’s most vaunted clubs were interested in securing his services for the upcoming season. Valencia won the race, and Ryan couldn’t have been more delighted, citing the club’s belief in him as a key factor in his decision.

“I definitely would not have made the big move to Spain if I or the team of people around me did not think I was ready,” he explained.

“I would not be here if I thought I was not good enough. You’ve got to have self-belief because you would not be anywhere without it.

“I see my move to Spain as a chance to prove that I am good enough to play at the highest level, which is something I have always wanted to do.”

In light of Valencia’s fabulous regular number one, Diego Alves, suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury at the backend of last season, which will keep him on the sidelines until at least November, Ryan couldn’t have timed his move any better.

It’s now up to him to seize the glorious opportunity that he’s been presented with. And if the early indications are anything to go by, Ryan is putting his best foot forward and doing everything in his power to make the coveted number one position his own.

“I can only control how well I perform and I’ve gone there with the intention to be playing as always and I hope I can prove to the coach that I am the best man for the job,” he insisted.

“I think the coach is looking for some stability now at the back there with a commanding goalkeeper; someone who has presence and is assured. I hope if it’s me I can deliver some nice performances for him in order to help the team win games.”

One thing that’ll be sure to hold him in good stead will be his exemplary attitude and his desire to be the best he can be. You know he’s always up for a challenge, and, crucially, always believes in himself. For the very individualistic position that goalkeeper is, this incredibly gifted Aussie certainly ticks all the boxes required to succeed – both physically and mentally.

And it’s his mindset that should see him thrive in his new surroundings. His period of adjustment will be undoubtedly assisted by the fact two members of the coaching staff, Phil Neville and Nuno, both speak English.

“Yes it’s obviously always nice to have a conversation with someone like him (Neville) who’s achieved it all,” Ryan said.

“The coach speaks really good English also. But it’s good to have Phil to just relay the message and someone else’s brain I can pick.”

After comfortably handling his first taste of European football, there should be many more memorable European nights in store for this gifted boy from Oz to compete in, and to shine in.

Valencia’s trip to Monaco for the second leg will provide the next challenging examination for him, and you know that when the Champions League anthem booms over the speakers, Ryan will be ready.

About the author:
Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.



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