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Is Australia's Mat Ryan the Premier League’s most underrated goalkeeper?

6:01 AM SGT 16/6/18
Mat Ryan Brighton Hove Albion
The man from Down Under came of age during the Premier League season, but faces the sternest of tests in Russia

They say size does matter, but when it comes to six foot tall Australian goalkeeper Mat Ryan, the phrase just doesn't stick.

The 26-year-old is the Premier League's smallest shot stopper, yet he stood tall for newly-promoted Brighton and Hove Albion as the club avoided relegation when many thought they would go down.

A famous 1-0 victory against Manchester United on May 4 secured the Seagulls' top flight status for next season, with Ryan getting his 10th clean sheet for the campaign - ranking him seventh for shut outs in the league.

Considering he faced the most shots (556) in the division and third-most on target (181), Ryan's contribution to Brighton was as important as any in a season that looked like being a struggle.

But it didn't always look like he would be a success in one of Europe's top five leagues.

Sydney-born Ryan rose to fame after breaking through for the A-League's Central Coast Mariners in 2010, winning the medal for best player in the competition's grand final despite being on the losing side.

After honing his talents in Australia, winning A-League goalkeeper of the year in 2011-12 and a championship in 2013, Ryan earned a move abroad to Belgium's Club Brugge, where he quickly established himself as a fan favourite.

Despite only winning the Belgian Cup in his two seasons with Brugge, Ryan was voted the Pro League's best goalkeeper twice and quickly started to get attention from Europe's premier clubs.

His consistent form saw La Liga's Valencia come calling in 2015 with a six-year contract and he had finally made it to the big stage.

After starting as the Spanish team's No.1 goalkeeper, disaster struck Ryan in the form of a knee injury only two months into his debut campaign, and he failed to get regular first team football until a six-month loan move to Belgium's Genk.

From there an opportunity presented itself at newly promoted Brighton, with Ryan being signed as the club's no.1, but as a relative unknown to English football fans.

Ryan struggled in pre-season and the early games of the campaign and when Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul was signed on a free transfer, it looked like the writing was on the wall for the Australian.

Being a smaller goalkeeper, Ryan struggled with the aerial aspect and command of area, with his main skill being his shot stopping and positioning.

But instead manager Chris Hughton stuck with Ryan, who played all 38 league games, saving two penalties and making a huge contribution in getting Brighton to safety.

Former Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer admired Ryan's progress in the Premier League - especially after his shaky start.

"The first five games in the English Premier league were really tough for him," Schwarzer told FourFourTwo.

"They were a steep learning curve as early on it didn’t really go to plan. He’ll be the first to admit that he conceded goals where he should’ve done better and that some of them he should’ve saved.

“But in the sixth game of the season where Brighton played Newcastle and there was a lot of talk of Matt not playing that game and being dropped, he ended up starting and played really well.

"From that moment on he’s kicked on and he’s gotten better and better and he’s grown in confidence as the season went on."

Now Ryan faces another massive challenge: help guide his nation to the knockout stages in Russia - through a group featuring France, Denmark and Peru.

It's his second World Cup, having conceded nine goals at Brazil 2014, including a howler against the Netherlands, as the Socceroos crashed out at the group stage.

This time round, Ryan enters the tournament as the best penalty saving goalkeeper, saving 11 of the 30 spot kicks faced in his career, ranking above world class keepers such as Manuel Neuer, David De Gea and Hugo Lloris.

Australia open their campaign with a match against France in Kazan on Saturday, and Ryan admits he has no fear after experiences against Les Bleus players in the Premier League.

"Having been successful against a few of these [French] guys in the league, it gives me enormous belief that we can be successful whenever we face [France] and that’s this Saturday. There is tremendous belief in our squad that we can go there and beat them," Ryan said from the team's training base in Kazan.

"They’re great players, they’re in their national team and their clubs for that reason. We have to be well prepared and find the balance of respecting them but not over-respecting them.

"The biggest thing I found out this year is that everyone I’ve come up against, they’re just human. We’ll be put under pressure and (there) may be struggling circumstances, maybe the same thing can happen to them if you apply it in the right areas at the right times."

Unfortunately for the unfancied Australia, they are going to likely need a superhuman performance from Ryan to secure a result against France.

He entered the Premier League as a relative unknown after being let go as Valancia's third choice goalkeeper, but emerged as arguably Brighton's most important player and won the fans' player of the year award.

Now he has the chance to cap off a brilliant season by starring for his country in Russia.