(Daniel Sturridge 37)
(Claudio Marchisio 35, Mario Balotelli 50)
The taxi driver spoke no English. He noticed the Fifa accreditation badge and sighed. He glanced up at the rearview mirror, waggled a finger and said: “Rooney … No!”
Along with the rest of the world, the Brazilian cabby acknowledged what Roy Hodgson is reluctant to address.
Wayne Rooney might be coming to the end of the road for England.
No pleasure is derived from such a claim. England’s main striker stretched every nerve and sinew to breaking point in the searing, uncompromising heat of Manaus.
He chased and harried like the Rooney of old; the unstoppable scoring machine of Euro 2004.
He bullied and harassed and dragged his reddening, drenched body to its limit.
And it still wasn’t enough.
Fullback Matteo Damian and the revelatory Antonio Candreva bypassed him, toyed with him and spun him like a top. At times, their interplay resembled a dispiriting game of blind man’s buff with Rooney blindfolded and arms stretched in desperation.
His sterling service for his country deserves a more fitting legacy than this. But he’s unlikely to get one.
Still without a World Cup Finals goal to his name, the 28-year-old was played out of position and out of touch. He played second fiddle to the kids.
Hodgson inadvertently admitted as much. In attempting to justify Rooney’s lacklustre performance, he subconsciously damned him with faint praise.
“We wanted to get Raheem Sterling around Andrea Pirlo because of his agility and of course that meant Rooney on the left,” the England manager said, in the bowels of the Arena da Amazonia Stadium, minutes after the Group D defeat.
“And I thought he did very well — he worked very hard, he set up the goal.”
Rooney’s cross was indeed arrowed across goal with the precision of a master craftsman and was rewarded with the thumping finish from Daniel Sturridge that it deserved.
But Hodgson’s tactical revelation betrayed his thinking. He sent a boy to do a man’s job; Rooney’s job.
Sterling’s superior speed earned him the thankless task of shackling Pirlo — a task he actually performed with less success than his eye-catching counter-attacking duties.
Sterling was the thorn in Italy’s side. Rooney was the pawn in England’s side. How the mighty have fallen.
English sides were once built around Rooney. Now he is a fringe player, literally and metaphorically, in Hodgson’s tactical line-up.
Rooney is struggling to fit in anywhere in a youthful, faster, counter-attacking side that are not inhibited by tactical caution but personnel deficiencies. Hodgson’s tactical spirit is willing, but Rooney’s flesh is weak — an obvious point conceded by both managers.
When asked if England had satisfactory cover for the besieged Leighton Baines, Hodgson replied: “We did in the first half, much less so in the second half — although we got caught up field for the goal. You can’t cover going forward as much as we were going forward.”
But other teams can. The Italians did. As the game evolves, thankfully, away from tippy- tap possession passing around the centrecircle to a more muscular, faster counter-attacking approach, fullbacks and wingers are expected to tag team or the system falters.
Rooney was actively targeted by the Italians, pinpointed as the weak link. They probed and poked away at England’s Achilles’ heel with the methodical consistency of dispassionate scientists.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli isn’t interested in reputations, only results, and the coaches’ respective handling of their erratic superstars says volumes about both men and the psyche of their respective countries.
On Rooney, Hodgson said: “There’s always got to be one player whom there’s a big debate around, but I think it’s going to be harsh to criticise Rooney’s performance today because he played very well.”
The long, excruciating pause in the room said more than Hodgson’s comment. The silence was punctuated only by the quiet tapping of keyboards.
Somehow, Rooney wasn’t to blame, but the debate surrounding him. The media and the public had once again colluded to destabilise England’s main man.
In stark contrast, Prandelli said of Mario Balotelli: “He could do a lot more. Right before coming on stage here, I told him he can still do better. He has to continue to perform. There are still many areas of improvement.”
Balotelli had scored the winning goal and been chosen as the match sponsor’s Man of the Match.
Rooney had been the weak link. The ruthless Italians hacked away at him mercilessly, like a farmhand chopping down sugarcane.
Yet the managers’ subtext was unmistakable. A dip in form sees Balotelli introduced to the bench, but Rooney is safe.
Hodgson instead focuses on the sleeve-rolling cliches — the brave, the bold and the occasionally beautiful. Prandelli focuses on the three points and moves on.
Rooney, it would seem, is going nowhere. And nor are England — unless Hodgson makes the most courageous decision of his career.
Hodgson: We'll win our next two games
Roy Hodgson is convinced England will qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup, if they repeat their performance against Italy in the final two group games.
The Three Lions were defeated 2-1 by the Italians, but they were unlucky not to claim at least a point in a thrilling clash in Manaus yesterday morning (Singapore time).
England went for the kill from the off, with Raheem Sterling, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge all launching blistering attacks that had Italy on the ropes.
Unfortunately for Hodgson (above), Italy exposed England's defensive weaknesses to inflict a damaging defeat, courtesy of goals from Claudio Marchisio and Mario Balotelli.
Hodgson admits England may have to win both their remaining games against Uruguay and Costa Rica, but he is confident that the team will do it.
"We had a very young and inexperienced team on the field at the end, but they made some bold moves and didn't let anyone down," the England manager said. "That gives me great hope and confidence.
"If we can continue at that level, we can go on and win both matches and stay in the tournament.
"You don't win your next two matches if you win the first, and you don't necessarily lose your last two matches because you lost the first.
"We will prepare for them and we will try and do our best to get the wins."
With Uruguay losing their opening game against Costa Rica, they too need to win on Friday morning and Hodgson predicts another thrilling match in Sao Paulo.
"It is likely to be a similar encounter to the Italy game - it will be cut and thrust," he said.
"There will be two teams who have lost the opening game and know they have to win the next one."
The good news for England is that Uruguay looked incredibly vulnerable to pace in their shock 3-1 defeat by Costa Rica.
The bad news for England is that Uruguay striker Luis Suarez is closing in on a return to full fitness, after sitting on the bench throughout the Costa Rica loss with a knee injury.
Sturridge and Steven Gerrard looked to be struggling at the end of the match, but Hodgson reported no fresh fitness concerns.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stepped up his rehabilitation from a knee injury over the weekend and he could be in the frame to face Uruguay.
England's only injury in Manaus came to physio Gary Lewin, who broke and dislocated his ankle after landing on a water bottle celebrating Sturridge's equaliser.
Hodgson's only other concern is that some of his players suffered cramps in the dying stages of the Italy match.
"Quite a few of our players cramped up. That is something we will look into," Hodgson said.
"We have worked very hard on hydration and we still did cramp up quite a lot." - PA Sport.