Five goals in three games have announced Wayne Rooney’s return to international prominence. His performance against Belarus last night, and the build-up to it against Croatia and Kazakhstan, indicate that the Manchester United striker is ready to fulfil his potential with England.
His recent performances, particularly an outstanding display against Belarus, are among his best in an England shirt since he burst onto the international scene as a fresh-faced 17-year-old in 2003. He is no longer the impact player who ran rings around Turkey on his first England start or who threatened to single-handedly win Euro 2004 for England before being halted by a foot injury, but he is a more intelligent footballer.
He has probably lost a touch of that teenage energy since those optimistic days of his early England performances, and opposition defences are now acutely aware of the danger he poses. But he now works better as a team player rather than trying to take on the world by himself, and recent performances show that when his confidence is high and he is played in the right position he can still produce magical moments of football.
Rooney himself acknowledges his return to form. He said: “I think it’s probably the best I’ve ever played for England. I’m enjoying my football, getting on the ball and scoring and making goals.”
Fabio Capello and Emile Heskey have to take some of the credit for bringing the best out of Rooney once again. Capello’s decision to omit Michael Owen from recent squads is looking increasingly like a favour to Rooney rather than a slight to Owen. The pair have on occasion played well together – a friendly against Argentina in Switzerland and those Euro 2004 matches spring to mind – but this has not always been the case.
Rooney has been asked to play up-front by himself, which ended in disaster against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, and with Peter Crouch. The Portsmouth giant may be a big man, but he is not the right sort of big man to bring the best out of Rooney. Crouch is Pele trapped inside a giraffe’s body. He wants to show off his skills and score spectacular goals (or at least attempt to). His aerial ability is not great for someone who is 6ft 7in tall.
Rooney needs to play alongside the stereotypical British centre-forward to be at his best. Someone who will lead the line, be a threat in the air and occupy defenders while he drops deep to work his magic. Rooney and Alan Shearer in his heyday would have been a formidable partnership. In Shearer’s absence, it is Heskey who is best suited to partner Rooney. Capello has not only recognised this, but also decided that it is worth sacrificing another goal-scoring striker in order to bring the best out of Rooney.
On the basis of last night, it is difficult to disagree with him.