Verbeek cracks whip at Australia camp

MELBOURNE - After a few jet-lagged mornings wandering bleary-eyed around their luxury hotel, Australia's World Cup squad were dumped in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs for a feisty inter-team practice match on Saturday.

The Socceroos' home training camp has had a stop-start feel about it. Morning practice sessions have been cancelled as players trickled in from around the world, some carrying injury niggles with their luggage.

Coach Pim Verbeek's mandated 'easing in' came to an abrupt halt at the leafy grounds of Monash University, however, when players donned bibs for the practice match ahead of Monday's friendly against New Zealand.

With Verbeek to cut seven from the 30-man squad by Tuesday the players were more than keen to make an impression on the sun-bathed pitch.

None would have felt that more than Middlesbrough forward Scott McDonald, handed a lifeline by Verbeek after failing to score in 15 internationals, who was dumped unceremoniously by an orange-bibbed defender when about to strike.

A searing 30-metre strike from Jason Culina, hammered into the back of the net to the delight of a few dozen spectators, did no harm for the midfielder's selection hopes.

"I wish I'd saved it for Monday night," Culina, a member of Australia's 2006 World Cup team, told reporters.

"The boys that have come into camp are very, very fit. There are a few boys who needed a bit of break to freshen up and that's what we've been doing."


Those with leave passes included playmaker Harry Kewell, yet to fully recover from a troublesome groin injury which rules him out of Monday's game, and Japan-based striker Josh Kennedy, resting back soreness.

Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was confined to kicking after spraining his left thumb and may miss Monday's friendly.

Australia's talisman Tim Cahill trained away from the main group, but appeared in decent touch off head and foot and should line up against New Zealand.

The 18-year-old Tommy Oar, dubbed the 'next Harry Kewell' by Australian media for his left wing play, looked lively and his chance of a spot in the final 23 was endorsed by defender Luke Wilkshire.

"Obviously he's bolted from nowhere I think you could probably say over the last six-eight months," said the Dynamo Moscow defender, sporting a lightning bolt of stitching on his forehead from an operation to dig out a skin cancer.

Wilkshire assured reporters he was in fine health.

"I've never been able to head the ball (anyway)," he said.

Monday's friendly is expected to draw a huge crowd at the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground as fans bid farewell to the Socceroos before they head to South Africa for the June 11-July 11 finals.

They have been drawn to play Germany, Serbia and Ghana in Group D, one of the tournament's toughest pools.

Despite it being the first match between 20th-ranked Australia and 78th-ranked New Zealand in five years, the neighbours' traditional rivalry instincts have flared and players from both sides have taken verbal pot-shots.

"I'm sure they'd love nothing better than to come across here and to try and knock us off. We expect a tough game," Wilkshire warned.

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