Roy Hodgson, face facts: Wayne Rooney no longer right fit for England
If Wayne Rooney is fit enough to walk, he will be in Roy Hodgson's England squad for the European Championships this summer. No amount of goal-scoring heroics from Harry Kane or Jamie Vardy will be enough to send the Manchester United striker into international exile. Rooney will be the first name on the England manager's team sheet when his team play Russia in Marseille, France, in June.
"I have to repeat: Wayne is our captain and has captained the team extremely well in the past two years," Hodgson said after a 3-2 victory over Germany in Berlin on Saturday. This suggests that the 30-year-old's value as a leader will be important for a young, inexperienced group of players in France. Yet Rooney has struggled for fitness and form this season. He would not make the squad on merit. To shoehorn him into the team requires a number of compromises.
Hodgson picked four strikers in his squad for the Brazil World Cup two years ago. If he followed a similar route, Kane, Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck would appear to be ahead of Rooney at this point. There are always concerns about Sturridge's fitness, and Welbeck is being nursed back from a serious knee injury, but both have the sort of pace that stretches defences and creates space for teammates. Taking Rooney as a fifth striker would narrow midfield options in France.
That did not worry Hodgson too much in Brazil. In the first two matches against Italy and Uruguay, he started with just two specialist midfielders, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. All semblance of balance in these sides was discarded because the manager was desperate to get Rooney and Gerrard, his elder statesmen, onto the team. Both games were lost 2-1 in shambolic circumstances, and England were out. The third match, against Costa Rica, was meaningless. When the pressure is most intense, Hodgson relies on the players he believes he can trust, even if all evidence suggests they are out of form or nearing the end of their career.
Rooney has been more impressive for England than for Manchester United over the past two years. Hodgson knows that the striker is at his best when he is bearing down on the opposition. When Rooney plays with his back to goal, his poor first touch and haphazard control are exposed. The England manager has a much clearer understanding of how to get the best out of the forward than United's Louis van Gaal, who misuses Rooney on a weekly basis.
Yet the deeper Rooney drops, the less effective he becomes. It is hard to make a case for him as a front-line striker given the competition. If Hodgson tries to fudge the issue in France as he did in Brazil -- against Italy, Rooney played on the left of midfield -- England's potency will diminish.
Even at the peak of his powers, Rooney was a player who needed the team to be built around him for maximum effectiveness. Now that he is in decline, it is not worth compromising the team to accommodate Rooney.
Yet Hodgson will. The England manager does not see himself as hidebound. "At some stage I was told I'm conservative in some way and that will stay with me for the rest of my life," he said, refuting the suggestion that he is predictable. There is an innate caution about his teams, though. Bottom line: Hodgson trusts players he has trusted before.
It is hard to see why. In Brazil, with youthful energy available to England across the pitch, the fading legs of Rooney and Gerrard took central roles. In almost any other country, the performances in the 2014 World Cup would have gotten Hodgson sacked.
Two years on, there is even more pace in the squad. There are more goals, too. No defence in Europe would be comfortable dealing with Sturridge, Kane or Vardy. Hodgson has been presented with a rare opportunity to be radical and kill off suggestions that he is a conservative. Instead, he will once again turn to Rooney.
For what? The captaincy? There might be a lack of leaders in Hodgson's squad, but that is matched with a refreshing lack of ego. While Rooney might know what tournament football is all about, the sum total of that experience is defeat and rancour, stretching from Portugal in 2004 to Brazil 10 years later.
Hodgson has one more chance to get things right with England. It is now or never. Forcing Rooney into the team would be repeating the mistakes of the past.
West Ham rested for Premier League run-in
West Ham United fans complained when Aaron Cresswell and Mark Noble were left out of the England squad, but they should have been cheering. The best thing a team vying for a Champions League place could ask for at this point in the season is a two-week break. Manager Slaven Bilic will be grateful his men have had a chance to put their feet up rather than travelling for friendlies.
Benteke speaks his mind
There was quite a fuss about Christian Benteke questioning why he is not getting more playing time for Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp while on international duty with Belgium. Of course Benteke is unhappy. But why say it while away with the national team? When players go home, they get to speak to the media in their own language and deal with people they know and trust. Plus there is no PR man from their club lurking around. What players say on international duty is often the truest indication of how they think, even if some of them deny it when they arrive back in England.
Disappointing season for Everton
Romelu Lukaku has also been talkative while away with Belgium. The Everton striker wants Champions League football and will not get it on Merseyside. He probably also wants a pay rise and a club with a higher profile. The disappointment for those around Goodison is that Everton are another of those clubs who will look at this season as a massive missed opportunity. Lukaku has scored 25 goals in all competitions. With that sort of striker in the side, Everton might have expected to be at least in the top half of the Premier League. Reaching the semifinals of the FA Cup has given them a boost, but their overall performances this season have not been good enough. Manager Roberto Martinez needs to win the cup or he might be joining Lukaku through the exit door in the summer.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.