By Iain Strachan
The grim news that Rhys Williams will miss the rest of the season due to a torn Achilles tendon leaves Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou without a certain starter at centre-back going into the World Cup in Brazil.
So who are the candidates for the unenviable task of leading Australia's backline against Chile, the Netherlands and Spain in June?
Postecoglou retained Neill as captain and started him in the friendly against Costa Rica in November, but the coach has been adamant he will only select players getting regular football. Neill has been without a club since leaving Omiya Ardija in November and time is running out the 35-year-old. Even if he finds himself a team by the March deadline imposed on him by Postecoglou, it remains to be seen if his form, questionable at best for the club and country late last year, will be good enough to justify selection.
The 24-year-old, who plays for Shandong Luneng Taishan in the Chinese Super League, replaced Williams just after half-time and partnered Neill for the reminder of the Costa Rica friendly, suggesting he features prominently in Postecoglou's initial planning. McGowan performed strongly at the East Asian Cup under Holger Osieck, and was an innocent enough victim of the thrashing against Brazil after being played out of position at fullback.
The former Central Coast Mariners stalwart was called up for the Costa Rica friendly and can consider himself unfortunate not to make what would have been his senior international debut after a strong season in South Korea with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. At 29 he would certainly be a late bloomer, but given the lack of alternatives playing regularly at a high level, Wilkinson finds himself near the head of the queue to start in Brazil.
Ognenovski hasn't played for Umm Salal since December 21 and is reportedly close to leaving the Qatari club, with the A-League touted as a potential destination. Like Neill, his chances of earning a Socceroos recall depend on whether or not he plays regularly, and performs, in the months ahead. He will be 35 in April, and a lack of pace is likely to count against him.
Arguably the leading A-League-based candidate, the 25-year-old has acquitted himself well for Western Sydney Wanderers and demonstrated his flexibility by playing in midfield against Perth Glory last week. Spiranovic has the technique and mobility to suit Postecoglou's likely gameplan.
Strong, good in the air and having a consistent season with Perth Glory, but the 30-year-old lacks pace and should only be sent up against the likes of Alvaro Negredo and Robin van Persie as a last resort. The same goes for Brisbane Roar's Matt Smith.
Capable of playing at centre-back or fullback, flexibility may count in the Millwall defender's favour and Postecoglou has acknowledged the 24-year-old is on his radar, but there will be concerns over his disciplinary record - Lowry has been sent off twice this season already.
Another versatile player able to operate in defence and midfield, the 24-year-old has previously missed out on a likely senior international debut due to injury. Herd has only played twice for Aston Villa this season, and might need a more sustained run of matches to convince Postecoglou.
If it's regular game-time you're looking for, promising 21-year-old Wright is your man - he has made 27 appearances and scored twice for Preston North End as they chase promotion from League One to the Championship. Postecoglou singled him out as one of the players he is interested in watching during a scouting trip to the UK and Europe in January and February.
Already a consistent performer and first-team regular for the Mariners at just 22, Sainsbury has all the physical and technical attributes to become a top quality centre-back. His attitude has counted against him in the past, with Osieck opting not to afford him a senior debut at East Asian Cup due to perceived arrogance.
An Osieck favourite who plays regularly for Jeonnam Dragons in South Korea, Cornthwaite will be somewhere in Postecoglou's thinking, but the 28-year-old's lacks pace and is not comfortable enough with the ball at his feet.