Friday, May 11, 2007

Neill brave but ignorant

Neill brave but ignorant.
Lucas Neill is no stranger to going out on a limb.

Neill, a regular in the Socceroos backline and one of Australia's star turns in last year's World Cup, has been hammered from all quarters following his well-documented decision in the transfer window to snub Liverpool - and what turns out to be a possible appearance in the Champions League final - in favour of a relegation battle at cashed-up West Ham.

Before that his name was central to the debate of diving in modern football after conceding a stoppage time penalty to Italy's Fabio Grosso in Australia's heartbreaking second round World Cup loss to the eventual champions 11 months ago.

And now Neill's at it again, this week boldly predicting an unblemished Australian success at July's Asian Cup finals.

Critics might suggest the 29-year-old, in the midst of a relegation dogfight at the foot of the English Premier League table, is hardly in the best position to judge the relative merits of Group A challengers Thailand, Oman and Iraq.

But when asked about his expectations for Australia's maiden AFC adventure, Neill responded by confidently boasting he expects Graham Arnold's Socceroos to remain unbeaten throughout the tournament.

Then, just for good measure, Neill also noted that they wouldn't even need a fully fit Tim Cahill or Harry Kewell to breeze through the group stage although conceded the recovering pair would have to be back to their best in the knockout stage to negotiate the likes of Japan and South Korea (Neill's tips for success).

Australia could face a possible quarter-final clash against Japan, a repeat of the World Cup opener which the Socceroos won 3-1 last year.

"I really think we've got a squad that can handle the conditions, enough of us have played on the biggest stage now that we won't be intimidated by the teams we're going to play against and I really see the standard we're expecting to set taking us all the way to the end," Neill said in a teleconference with reporters on Thursday.

While on Cahill and Kewell he added: "There might be a couple of games where they might not have to be 100 per cent fit or 100 per cent on their games. We might be able to get away with them being 90 or 95 per cent of their best."

But how could Neill know?

Speaking on the eve of West Ham's crunch match against Manchester United on the final day of the English season, surely Neill's immediate thoughts revolved around how to control the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo and preserve the London club's Premiership status.

But even without that significant distraction, you have to wonder whether the Australians are being caught up in their own hype.

It could be devastating to the chances of the Socceroos, currently ranked second in Asia behind Iran, if they blindly assumed that being the sole AFC nation to progress past the group stage at the World Cup makes them heavy Asian Cup favourites.

Much of Neill's absolute faith in Australia's chances of going undefeated comes from last year's pre-World Cup build-up under departed coach Guus Hiddink, a program which resulted in Australia being considered among the fittest and most prepared sides in Germany.

He also said that the conditions across co-hosts Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam will be a 'leveller', hinting that Australia's vital acclimatisation camp in Singapore during June would be preparation enough for the extreme climate expected in Bangkok around kick-off time (90 percent humidity and a 50 per cent chance of rain on matchdays).

Of course, Australia's almost wholly European-based squad is not foolish enough to believe that playing on variable pitches at extreme temperatures will not provide its share of challenges, and time will reveal any degree of overconfidence from Neill and his colleagues.

Local followers only hope that two warm-up matches - against arch-rivals Uruguay on June 2 and Singapore on June 30 - is sufficient to avoid any embarrassment when they come face-to-face with Oman, Gulf Cup finalists in January remember, in their group opener.

It might just not be the walk in the park some are predicting.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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