Jim White

It all rests on Rooney

Jim White

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Remember when Sven Goran Eriksson was England
manager? Remember his habit of leaving matches long before the end, sometimes
before half-time?

Well, it was understandable, the guy had lots
of other interests on his plate, lots of other meetings to attend (often in
nearby hotels). But it made you wonder what the point of his turning up at all
was when he generally missed most of the decisive action.

Fortunately for those who take an interest in
the fortunes of the national team, Fabio Capello seems a little less keen on
swift departure than his predecessor. He was, for instance, there at Wembley at
the final whistle of the Community Shield, thus enabling him to see two
Englishmen convert their spot-kicks in a penalty shoot out (he would also have
seen the goalkeeper reckoned to be in with a shout of being his number one this
season giving a passable impression of Massimo Taibi, but let's not dwell on the negatives here).

What would have cheered him up even more than
the sight of Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick's
dead-eyed skill, however, was that he stayed long enough to witness at first
hand the intervention that took the game to penalties in the first place. It
came in the 92nd minute, even as Wembley emptied, with the corporate Svens
already heading for a traffic-free getaway. Wayne Rooney latched on to a
beautifully balanced through ball from Ryan Giggs, powered through the meanest
defence in the Premier League as if it were made of blotting paper and clipped
the ball delicately over Petr Cech's
massive, spreading frame. It was a superb goal, well executed in its build-up
and wonderfully taken by a player who had never stopped trying, never stopped
running, never stopped making the difference.

Watching that, Capello will have had mixed
feelings. On the one hand he will have been thrilled to see Rooney deployed
down the middle for his club at last. True, he took the goal coming in from the
left, a position Alex Ferguson has long said he can exploit to devastating
effect. But Rooney is at his most compelling in the centre, dropping off the
opposing defenders, exploiting the space in front of the back four in order to
conjure up room behind. Now Ronaldo has headed south, the United manager has
promised this is where we will see him this season. Though given Rooney's ability to fill in, we shouldn't be too surprised if he ended up in goal. After
all, given Ben Foster's
nerve-wracked performance, United may well have a gap there soon.

Capello will have been thrilled too to see
Rooney's finish, the touch, the
confidence, the excellence of his decision-making. He will have known, seeing
him leave a pacy, strong defender like Jose Bosingwa panting in his wash, that
he has in his possession a player of rare speed and agility, a player with
everything.

But before he could get too excited, the England
manager will have remembered the two previous international competitions in
which Rooney was involved and he will have sighed at the fragility of his
barrel-chested genius. On both occasions, in 2004 and 2006, he was compromised
by his metatarsals. And once they snapped England's
hopes went with them.

It is not fanciful to suggest that the preparations
Capello makes during the build up to the World Cup finals in South Africa next June, a period that begins
tonight in the Amsterdam Arena with a tough friendly against Holland, will all be undermined if Rooney
succumbs once more to his big tournament curse.

Capello knows the simple equation of his job:
with the United forward in his team he has a chance, a fleeting, faint and
distant chance perhaps, but a chance nonetheless. Without him he has none. With
Rooney fit and firing and playing like he did on Sunday, next summer Capello
might just arise as Sir Fabio. With him sitting in the stands, his foot in
plaster and wearing a face like John Prescott hearing that the pies have just
run out, the manager knows hope will disappear somewhere in the direction of Greenland.

With nine months to go, Rooney's
health is all that matters for England
now. Everything else is just set dressing.

Paul Parker: Holland friendly is pointless

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