On Saturday night – unless he gets injured – Wayne Rooney starts for England. You can take that prediction to the bank.
Why his position is even up for debate I really don’t know but it would be lunacy to leave him out of the first game of the World Cup. That won’t happen and it was never likely to happen, despite everything we’ve read about him.
The media latched onto the issue of Rooney’s inclusion a few weeks ago and have basically run with the story. The reason for that, as far as I can tell, is because there’s very little else to write about.
We’ve got no significant injuries in the squad, or not to the players who are likely to start against Italy, and there’s been no controversy at all – which for England at a World Cup is quite unusual.
Whether it’s WAGS, disciplinary issues or infighting within the camp, something usually happens in the lead up or right in the middle of a major tournament but we’ve been free of any of that this time. It’s left a bit of a vacuum and the speculation about Rooney has filled it.
The argument against him playing tomorrow is that he hasn’t turned it on at previous World Cups. That’s probably a fair criticism of him but who exactly did turn it on in 2006 or 2010? They were disappointing tournaments where a lot of players fell short. Pinning the blame to Rooney is unfair, and a kop-out.
He’s had a hard and underwhelming season at Manchester United but he was probably the best of a bad bunch. The crisis at Old Trafford would have been deeper without him. And his capacity to change a game is still there, whatever anyone says. He deserves to play against Italy.
Hodgson is too wise and too sensible to be influenced by opinions in the media. To be honest, I’d be worried about any England manager who took advice from there. You need your own plan and strategy and the conviction to stick to it when the pressure’s on.
For me, Rooney’s inclusion is part of a wider issue. In this England squad only five players have featured in World Cups before. That’s a massive shortage of experience. It doesn’t have to be a detrimental factor but watching the goalless draw between England and Honduras last weekend, it dawned on me that when Rooney and Steven Gerrard left the field, the line-up looked very light on wise heads.
A month or so back, I gave my preferred starting line-up for tomorrow’s match. It went (in a 4-2-3-1 formation): Hart; Johnson, Jagielka, Cahill, Baines; Henderson, Gerrard, Lallana, Rooney, Sterling; Sturridge. Nothing I’ve seen in the friendlies – or of Italy for that matter – has changed my mind.
There are arguments against Sterling’s inclusion – he’s not as defensively useful as someone like Welbeck, he’ll run out of steam in the heat – but he’s a threat and using him from the start would be ambitious. He’ll make runs behind Italy’s defence, some of them poor or mistimed but others extremely difficult to track. And when he gets the ball in space, you only have to look at his form for Liverpool to know that he’ll do damage.
Where Rooney’s concerned, some people would prefer Ross Barkley in the number 10 position. I’m a big fan of Barkley (aren’t we all) and at his best he’s a treat to watch but he’s not the complete player yet. When he goes off the boil, he can lose the ball and he can lose his way. I absolutely agree that if Rooney is toiling or contributing little then the baton should pass to Barkley. But I do think the people who are ruling Rooney out are misjudging the ability of both players.
I’ve thought a lot about tomorrow’s game and I really can’t call it.
Italy are favourites, that’s fair to say, and it’ll be curtains if Andrea Pirlo is allowed to run the game.
The way he controls play is phenomenal but I’m quietly optimistic because I can’t see there being more than a goal between the sides – and I’m not sure the game will see more than one goal at all.
I always feel that if you play for a draw against Italy, a draw is the most you’ll get. They don’t tend to make many mistakes and they’re very good at dictating matches.
A draw wouldn’t be a bad start for England but at the same time, I think Hodgson’s players need to back themselves. They need to remember that they’ve got in-form players in their team and players who can do damage. They don’t need to be gung-ho but they don’t need to be negative either. Hanging on against Italy, looking to nick a goal, is not the right way to go.
The encouraging thing for me is that the England camp has a nice relaxed mood. I’ve been to several World Cups and played in one and that isn’t always the way. I hope the players take it all in because as tournaments go, there really is nothing like it.