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50-50 Challenge: Scotland vs. England

50-50 Challenge Nov 17, 2014
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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin
Jun 5, 2014

Rooney remains an asset for England

Craig Burley and Steve Nicol discuss the rumours behind who will and will not start for Roy Hodgson.

Rampaging from behind England's halfway line, the young Liverpudlian tyro hurtled past defenders, his surge drawing opponents to him, consequently making space for his attacking colleagues.

- Brewin: Mixed fortunes against Ecuador
- #WorldCupRank: No. 14, Wayne Rooney

In England's 2-2 draw against Ecuador in Miami on Wednesday, Ross Barkley provided a glimpse of the Wayne Rooney that England once knew. The current version, a decade on from his breakthrough, was to be found to Barkley's left, feeling his way into an unfamiliar position, never quite imposing himself. Rooney did score a goal, but it was almost certainly the softest he has scored in an England shirt, and he was often a bystander when the best players on show were attackers -- neither England nor Ecuador showed much aptitude for defence.

The zest of Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were by far the high points for England. Defensive problems, a leggy midfield performance from Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere, Raheem Sterling's dismissal and an injury for Oxlade-Chamberlain were negatives.

Rooney's performance was by no means such a worry; it was merely another question without an obvious answer. There has been a growing clamour for Roy Hodgson to omit Rooney from the starting lineup when England begin their World Cup campaign against Italy in Manaus. It was neither quietened nor augmented by Rooney's 64 minutes in the dampness of the Sun Life Stadium.

Barkley, for the all the promise he showed, including the thrilling venture that set up Rickie Lambert to crisply score England's second, still looked rather too raw to be trusted in the heat of the Italian job. Hodgson was hardly effusive in his praise of the Everton man, though there was a distinct sense that he was trying to muffle hysteria. Barkley does not currently look a likely starter, and the England press pack love nothing more than generating a cause celebre.

"I will be prepared to start any of the players in any game, but I'm not prepared to address your obsession with Ross Barkley," the England boss told reporters in Miami. "If he's going to be the player we want him to be, he has to make better decisions when he turns with the ball."

This was a far cry from the praise Sven-Goran Eriksson used to lavish on Rooney, whose performances at Euro 2004 he once compared to watching a teenage Pele at the 1958 World Cup. "Wayne Rooney is the golden boy of English football," the Swede said as he vacated his position in 2006. "Don't kill him because you will need him."

Wayne Rooney scored against Ecuador, but Ross Barkley drew more attention for his overall performance

They still need him, even though he has become a very different footballer. Rooney and Barkley's contrasting performances provide a prism to footballing pasts and futures. The latest Rooney farrago reveals much of the irresponsible power of nostalgia. It is wholly unrealistic to expect Rooney to revive the player he was at Euro 2004, just as it would be very strange to see a 30-year-old Barkley not develop beyond his 20-year-old self. Players progress as time passes. Energy is replaced by experience; bumps and bruises on the way will alter their game.

Since that summer of 2004, Rooney has played 500 matches at the highest of professional levels. His Miami strike was his 10th goal in 15 England appearances, a rate that none of his international colleagues comes close to. And while he is yet to score at a World Cup finals tournament, no Englishman has scored as many goals in qualification campaigns.

Hodgson has clearly set his heart on Daniel Sturridge as the single-point prong of his attack, with Rooney expected to adapt around that, even if time has definitely withered his adaptability. He was once a player who willingly sacrificed himself on the flanks for Manchester United, but one of the sources of his rows with Sir Alex Ferguson was an unwillingness to play second fiddle to Robin van Persie, or play in central midfield.

However, even as Rooney shuffled uncomfortably from flank to flank against Ecuador, he still maintained a significantly deeper threat than the willing-yet-lacking Danny Welbeck had offered against Peru the previous Friday. Rooney remains a much better footballer, and still his country's most capable.

Amid the doubts, it is forgotten that -- barring injury against Honduras on Saturday evening -- this has actually been Rooney's smoothest preparation for an international tournament since 2004. There was a fractured metatarsal ahead of Germany 2006, a tabloid crisis preceded 2010, while his suspension for the first two matches of Euro 2012 was preceded by an ill-advised refuelling trip to Las Vegas. By contrast, this time around, Rooney has led a monkish, injury-free existence. He certainly looks leaner for adding two fitness trainers to his family holiday party.

If the truism is followed that Rooney is at his best once delivered into peak fitness by playing in matches, then run-outs at Wembley and Miami may just have served England well. If Hodgson were considering dropping him, he would hardly have handed Rooney such opportunities.

He may not be able to play as he once did, or how Ross Barkley does now, but Rooney could yet have much to offer England in Brazil.