Sunday, May 4, 2008

Double date for Neill

Lucas Neill.
It might be the worry of becoming a dad for the first time, but West Ham and Australia captain Lucas Neill didn't look quite himself against Manchester United over the weekend.

Neill, who became public enemy number one at Old Trafford after his involvement in the first-half dismissal of United's Portuguese winger Nani, gifted the English champions their opener in a 4-1 romp Saturday lunchtime.

He slipped over to hand Cristiano Ronaldo his first, then was nowhere near when the recently-crowned player-of-the-year glanced home his second. In the second-half, Neill deflected Michael Carrick's effort past goalkeeper Robert Green.

Not a good afternoon's work for the man who probably has plenty of non-football related thoughts circling his mind at the moment.

Neill's long-term partner Lindsey Morris is expecting twins next month, an arrival which has already played a part in throwing into chaos Pim Verbeek's Socceroos preparations for a quartet of testing June World Cup qualifiers.

Verbeek revealed last week that he remains unsure of his skipper's availability for the home clashes with Iraq, in Brisbane, and China, in Sydney, plus the trips to Doha and Dubai, where the team will play the defending Asian Cup champions.

It is expected Neill will demand a release from Australia's squad to return to the UK at some point during June.

Making matters worse for Verbeek, who's steadily coming accept the Socceroos job for the challenging position it's become, is that incredibly Neill is one of four players with babies imminent.

Derby County recruit Mile Sterjovski, Bundesliga-based striker Josh Kennedy and fringe midfielder Jacob Burns also all have partners due to give birth next month.

Kennedy's absence would be another hammer blow for the diplomatic Verbeek.

With Mark Viduka ruling himself out of international action this summer because of an Achilles niggle which may need an operation at the season's end, the little and large paring of Kennedy and Scott McDonald is the Dutchman's first choice striking partnership.

A-League possibles John Aloisi, Archie Thompson and the rapidly-improving Bruce Djite are all under an injury cloud with Everton's attack-minded midfielder Tim Cahill another definitely sidelined after foot surgery.

That leaves Verbeek staring down the most important month for the Socceroos since the World Cup two years ago without anything close to his preferred front two in place.

McDonald, who wasn't even a part of Graham Arnold's Asian Cup odyssey this time last year, has suddenly found himself catapulted into the nation's consciousness because of a prolific season with Celtic.

The Scottish Premier League player-of-the-year nominee has exceeded all expectations since his summer move from Motherwell and scored his 30th goal of the season against his former club over the weekend.

However, with the Scottish champions-elect not finishing their campaign until May 18, McDonald looks like being precluded from Australia's May 23 warm-up match against Ghana in Sydney.

Kennedy, of Karlsruher, is also still in domestic action the same day to Verbeek's dismay.

Who benefits from all this toing and froing is anyone's guess.

Verbeek hinted at a reprieve for Joel Griffiths after the outspoken striker peeved Socceroos coaching staff with a swipe at February opponent Qatar and was subsequently axed for the March qualifier in China.

Griffiths, the reigning A-League player-of-the-year, is keeping his match sharpness through a loan spell at J-League side Avispa Fukuoka and Verbeek made a point of flying to watch him in action against Shonan Bellmare on Saturday.

But it proved to be a wasted trip as the 28-year-old didn't feature - he wasn't even named on the bench - as his side slipped to a 4-0 defeat.

Nimble-footed Nathan Burns is another candidate, albeit an entirely different proposition from either Viduka or Kennedy.

Burns, 19, has been courting a great deal of attention from European clubs and has the added bonus of being match fit from playing fortnightly in the AFC Champions League for Adelaide United.

He is considered the player most likely to be next exported to Europe, particularly with an Olympics to compete in, but might get his chance earlier than anticipated.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

Australian Soccer News

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