Lucas Neill dismissal signals Australia’s new direction for Brazil
Any lingering doubt about Ange Postecoglou’s resolve to send a new-look Australia to Brazil was blown out of the water with the axeing of Lucas Neill, but the Socceroos coach has plenty to ponder in the absence of his long-serving captain.
Postecoglou confirmed on Tuesday Neill would not be in his World Cup squad, a fate the 36-year-old had battled hard to avoid but one widely expected after he was left out of the Socceroos’ friendly against Ecuador in March.
Though a mainstay in Australia’s central defence for nearly a decade, Neill’s hopes of a third successive World Cup appearance were always slim.
They were effectively dashed when he failed to secure regular game-time in England’s second division after finishing a short stint with Japanese strugglers Omiya Ardija last year.
Postecoglou’s move was welcomed by many. Neill had come to symbolise an ageing core of players unwilling to step aside for a new generation to make their mark, even as the Socceroos’ decline was rawly exposed by successive 6-0 losses to Brazil and France last year.
The shattering defeats prompted the sacking of German coach Holger Osieck and left Neill’s career on a knife-edge.
If Neill was part of the problem, his absence may not be the panacea, however, as Australia brace for their ‘group of death’ challenge against Spain, Chile and Netherlands in Brazil.
Shorn of Neill and holding midfielder Luke Wilkshire, an unused sub against Ecuador, Postecoglou’s stitched-up defence unravelled spectacularly against their fellow World Cup qualifiers, squandering a 3-0 lead to fall 4-3 at The Den in London.
Compared to Neill’s 96 internationals, the starting back four against Ecuador had a total of 26 caps, with Sydney-based central defender Matthew Spiranovic the most senior among them with 17 appearances.
Injury problems have also struck at the worst time, with centre backs Trent Sainsbury and Curtis Good, who endured a torrid debut against Ecuador, scrambling to be fit for Brazil, where the Socceroos kick off their Group B campaign against Chile on June 13.
Sainsbury fractured his kneecap in a freak encounter with a sprinkler on debut for Dutch club PEC Zwolle, while Good has struggled with hip problems since the Ecuador match.
Their injuries have squeezed Postecoglou’s choices in defence with the versatile Rhys Williams all but ruled out of Brazil with a serious Achilles injury.
Neill’s omission follows the international retirements of evergreen Chelsea goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and 30-year-old midfielder Brett Holman, in keeping with Postecoglou’s hopes of rejuvenating a team that relied on its older hands to secure a third successive World Cup appearance.
Handed a five-year contract to develop the team, Postecoglou goes into Brazil with the luxury of low expectations. Only the most hard-core of supporters rate his team a chance of advancing to the knockout rounds.
Jettisoning Neill may reflect Postecoglou’s confidence that three hidings in Brazil will do little to harm his reputation, but it may do a lot more for a raw defence seeking to win the Asian Cup on home soil next year – arguably a more important tournament for soccer in Australia, where the term ‘football’ is more readily associated with the bruising indigenous game, Australian Rules.
Though the final makeup of Postecoglou’s defence remains a riddle six weeks out from Brazil, Neill’s replacement as captain appears more assured.
Defensive midfielder Mile Jedinak, who represented Australia in a one-sided thrashing by Germany at the 2010 World Cup, wore the captain’s armband against Ecuador and is favoured to retain it.
The rangy 29-year-old has been a revelation at Premier League club Crystal Palace since taking over from injured captain Paddy McCarthy, and scored an emphatic penalty over West Ham last month to secure the south Londoners another season in the top flight.
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Published: May 7, 2014 04:00 AM