Time for England to drop Rooney
REPORTING FROM MANAUS
(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 rear-view 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.
Full-back 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 blind-folded 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 C 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 is 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 centre-circle to a more muscular, faster counter-attacking approach, full backs 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: "I think there's always got to be one player that 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: "I think 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.
Roy Hodgson must make a decision: either play him in his proper No. 10 role just behind Daniel Sturridge or leave him out. I’m afraid that position (on the left wing) doesn’t suit Wayne, who was then pushed out wide on the right for a spell in the second half.
— Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, writing in the Independent
I was disappointed that I didn’t score but we always believed we could win. We’ll move on. We are looking forward to the game on Thursday and hopefully we can get three points.
— Wayne Rooney
We started the game really brightly, did well and there wasn’t too much we did wrong. Unfortunately we were on the losing team, but two good teams went at it. They have some very good players. sometimes, it’s cruel.
— England defender Gary Cahill
THREE LIONS: THE GOOD AND THE BAD
1. Attacking intent
Hodgson did inject youth and devised a 4-2-3-1 set up that emphasised their attacking intent.
The Three Lions were encouraged to keep the ball down and thread it between the lines. Even if England go home early, the philosophy bodes well for Euro 2016.
2. Very Sterling indeed
Raheem Sterling was very nearly a revelation. When he found himself with the ball at his feet, there was a genuine frisson of excitement.
The Italians certainly feared him. Uruguay and Costa Rica will, too.
3. The kids are all right
Perhaps Daniel Sturridge is not a kid at 24, but he's still a comparative rookie at international level. Yet he took his goal with aplomb and led the line well.
Substitute Ross Barkley showed some fearless, driving runs in central midfield. Jordan Henderson was perhaps marginally better than Steven Gerrard.
England's defeat was not a fault of their youthful additions.
1 Shaky case for the defence
Baines, Jagielka, Cahill and Johnson were playing together at a major tournament for the first time and the most noticeable deficiency was the lack of pace in the middle.
2 Where was the skipper?
Pirlo and Verratti enjoyed so much possession in the first-half that Gerrard was left conspicuous by his absence. He struggled to impose himself and close the gap between Italy's playmakers. Nor did he really stifle the service to Marchisio and Candreva.
3 Hodgson's bizarre excuse
His explanation for the defeat was strange. In a nutshell, Hodgson said, if the England are going for a braver, faster, counter-attacking game, they must expect to concede possession and a number of goal-scoring chances. Er, why? If a lack of pace on the left is an issue, then there is always the option of shifting Sterling out wide and bringing in Barkley.