Captain Character

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:25 AM ET

SEATTLE -- Philip Neville walked up to a group of reporters and took the time to shake everyone's hand before fielding questions after practice.

The small gesture by the Everton captain spoke volumes about his character, and revealed why the former England international is so highly regarded in the soccer world.

On Saturday, Neville, 32, will be front and centre as Everton takes on River Plate in an exhibition encounter (7:30 p.m.) at Commonwealth Stadium.

"I've never been to Edmonton, I've never been to that part of the world and I'm really looking forward to it," Neville said. "The game against River Plate is going to be a tough one. They're historically one of the biggest teams in Argentina, and games between England and Argentina always tend to be good matches."

A product of the Manchester United youth system, Neville spent 11 years with the Red Devils before joining Everton prior to the 2005 Premier League season.

He came up the ranks with David Beckham, who received a chilly reception in his season debut with the Los Angeles Galaxy after having been loaned out to Italian side AC Milan. A friend of Beckham, Neville was quick to defend his former teammate.

"He went back to Milan because he wanted to play in another World Cup and I don't think anyone should begrudge that because if you've ever had a chance to go to the World Cup, it's probably the pinnacle of anyone's footballing career," Neville said. "He's still playing for the L.A. Galaxy, he's still doing so much advertising for the MLS, because he's come back to American and suddenly everyone wants to know about the MLS and about the L.A. Galaxy. He's a world superstar and I think in America, particularly in L.A., they should be glad he's back and he's playing for them."

A star in his own right, Neville won six league titles, three FA Cup championships and a UEFA Champions League title during his time with Manchester United.

Last season, as their captain, Neville led Everton to a fifth-place finish in the league and a berth into the FA Cup final, scoring in a penalty shootout which helped eliminate his former ManU club in the semifinal.

"The expectations for us this year are to carry on from where we left off last year and keep improving," Neville said. "The last four seasons we've gradually gotten better and better and the next step for us is to win a major trophy. That's probably the hardest step to take, but it's one that I think we're capable of."

By finishing fifth in the Premier League, Everton, affectionately known as the Toffees, qualified to play in Europe's second tier competition, re-branded this year as the Europa League. The goal, however, heading into this Premiership season is to break into the top four and therefore earn a Champions League spot -- the top competition for European clubs.

To do that, Everton will have to knock off one of England's big four in Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and cross-town rival Liverpool.

"It's what we aim for," Neville said. "I think if you ask me what I prefer, whether it be a Champions League space or a trophy, I'd probably take a Champions League space. It's that big a competition now and it's the next step, it's probably the biggest step we have to take and we're going to have to raise the bar, not just one notch, but probably two or three notches."

Bringing in a player of Neville's calibre was one of the first steps in bringing the club back to prominence. Prior to his arrival, Everton had been precariously close to relegation on a couple of occasions.

"This club has had a lot of time without success and since the gaffer (manager David Moyes) came to the club, each season has gotten better," Neville said. "The last couple of seasons in particular we've had some good UEFA Cup runs, we've made it to some semifinals and now we've had a final and we've been able to put Everton back on the map."

"Consistently we've probably been the best team outside the top four and without a doubt the most consistent side outside the top four."

Saturday's game against River Plate, along with a contest against the MLS All-stars Thursday in Utah, will serve as tune-ups for Everton's upcoming Premier League season, which opens at home against Arsenal on Aug. 15.

"There's always been a grudge match between Argentina and England," Neville said. "We're both patriotic about our countries and about our football. I think the game on Saturday will be no different.

"I've played with some Argentines before ... (Juan) Veron and Gabriel Heinze and even in training they don't give an inch. It's why they're so successful and it'll be a really good test for us on Saturday."


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