Tuesday, March 27, 2007

V. good but will Dukes stick around?

Mark Viduka.
Celtic, Leeds United and Middlesbrough supporters don’t exactly need me to tell them Mark Viduka can be the match of anyone when he's on his day. The problem, however, for Australian coach Graham Arnold and the Socceroos fans is the striker nicknamed the V-Bomber is going to have to be at flying at full throttle the whole of July's Asian Cup for the AFC No.1-ranked side to stand a decent chance of going all the way.

Viduka was in imperious mood against China over the weekend in what was his first Socceroos appearance since the World Cup exit to Italy nine months ago. Indeed he's been in irresistible form in England since the turn of the year and seamlessly translated his domestic displays for Middlesbrough into one of those majestic individual performances the football fraternity knows lies within him, but tends all too rarely to see.

You could sense Dukes was in the mood for landing some punches on the sleepy Chinese defence from the get-go. Goalkeeper Li Leilei was just awake enough to parry the Australian captain's double efforts in the opening stages but the signs were apparent following a well-heeled drag-back in the build-up to one of the Shandong Luneng 'keeper's stops.

Viduka didn't ultimately find the net in his 76 minutes on the pitch - one of the problems is he does so infrequently (six times in 38 internationals). But his presence at the pinnacle of an attack which sees him surrounded by younger, more mobile supplementary strikers in Arnold's preferred system was immense. It might be bold to suggest that Australia would not have won without him, but when you consider the alternatives in that lone frontman role, the coach is not the only one praying Viduka shelves any plans of an Asian Cup swansong.

"What more is there to say about Dukes?" Arnold rhetorically asked national broadsheet The Australian afterwards. "He showed why we need him to stay on. We can't afford to lose him just yet.

"Mark is a vital ingredient for the national team so we need to find ways of making the Socceroos option even more attractive for him. He is only 31 and will be 34 by the time the next World Cup comes around. Mark needs to know that we are not going to impose heavy demands on him.

"Call it mollycoddling if you like but we can look after him with a well thought-out schedule in which he won't have to play in too many meaningless games and where we can cut down his travelling."

Arnold was clearly panicked by Viduka's heavy hint-dropping in the lead-up to the China clash. The burly striker's name is forever mentioned when the topic of international retirement rears its ugly head but this time he appeared to be truly flagging a desire to call it a day with the national team. There is one overriding reason: wife Ivana gave birth to son No.2 Lucas six months ago. But he has also been one a handful of senior Socceroos critical of how Asian Cup warm-up matches have been scheduled this June, giving the fatigued EPL stars just a couple of weeks break.

Viduka might only be in his early thirties, but the retirement age for Australians isn't always much higher given the weight of travelling required for most international fixtures. His trademark laid-back approach means his legs should have little trouble dragging him kicking and screaming all the way to the 2010 World Cup. But, with Arnold conceding a minimum of four more Socceroos will hang up their boots after the summer's events, some wonder why Viduka's name wouldn’t be among them?

The major concern for Arnold - and ultimately who will succeed him as national team coach for the World Cup qualifiers - is the paucity of striking reserves. John Aloisi, now plying his trade in the Spanish second division with Alaves, is the same age as Viduka. German-based Josh Kennedy was the pair's primary back-up under Guus Hiddink at the World Cup but he's not played since rupturing his right Achilles tendon last July.

The answer could lie with 23-year-old Scott McDonald, a player always mentioned as a Socceroos prospect having represented Australia at under-17, under-20 and under-23 levels. Club-side Motherwell turned down a million-dollar January transfer window bid from Rangers for the in-demand striker who's scored 12 times this season. But McDonald is now reportedly on his way to Old Firm rival Celtic after a bid of AUD$1.8 million was lodged by manager Gordon Strachan. Don't rule out McDonald for a surprise call-up when the serious business gets underway in little more than three month's time.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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