The talk emanating from the Socceroos’ camp is that the Hearts right-back is unlikely to be back in time for Wednesday’s final group match, therefore spelling the end of his tournament involvement if the remaining Group D results do not favour Graham Arnold’s men.
However, uncertainty over his recovery timeline will also be something for club manager Robbie Neilson to mull over as the Gorgie squad returns to business after a two-week break. Back in training as they prepare for the resumption of domestic fixtures on December 17, the Hearts gaffer is looking forward to having a bigger squad to choose from as the physio room clears slightly.
Atkinson’s fellow Aussie Kye Rowles returned from his long-term lay-off just before the World Cup, as did Craig Halkett, while Stephen Kingsley, Peter Haring, Stephen Humphrys and Gary Mackay-Steven are also expected to offer competition from back to front.
“I expect all of them apart from Beni [Baningime] and [Liam] Boyce,” said Neilson. “The rest of them should be fine if we can, touch wood, get the international players back fine. It will be good to have everyone back again.”
The cruciate injuries will require more rehabilitation and more patience, though. “With these things people say nine months but it is, more realistically, a year, so Beni might be ahead of schedule,” said Neilson. “When he’s ready, he’s ready. With Boycie, he has done his cruciate before so he knows how to rehab and he might be back sooner than we’d hoped.”
Having defensive strength and depth will be a huge boost after so many injuries in that area left the squad pretty stretched and players playing with niggles and knocks. Craig Halkett managed to get a little game-time under his belt before the World Cup break, but Neilson said he decided not to take any risks with Kingsley, who played 45 minutes in a 2-1 friendly defeat by Swansea on Tuesday. “With Stephen it's probably just better giving him that extra bit of time, building him up through that World Cup break,” added Neilson. “I expect them to be flying when they come back.”