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Rafa Benitez: I'm a big Rooney fan... but don't tell Liverpool!


You will understand why I was not able to discuss publicly the technical qualities of Wayne Rooney while I was with Liverpool! But now is the time to examine the aspects of his play which we can look out for and enjoy against Ukraine tonight. They make him an even better player than the one he was a few years ago.

I remember the time when Rooney played only as a striker and a second striker. At Liverpool, we would use Javier Mascherano, Lucas Leiva and Xabi Alonso against him and they knew how to reduce the space for him to play the ball. The reason he has grown as a player is that he has been used as a winger and in midfield and that has made his understanding of the game much better. Now, if he cannot find space in the central areas he will go wide and play there.

He is very unpredictable, which makes preparing teams to face him a very difficult job. The movement off the ball is very good because of his good anticipation. He really does make great runs and his instinctive understanding of the game should never be underestimated. He is very strong, too. He can keep the ball, bring players into the game and tackle. He can dribble and pass, create and finish. It is very rare to have all those qualities in one player.

People will be talking about Rooney's temperament and asking if it is right. Maybe he will try too hard at the beginning tonight but I think he will settle down. He is older and has more experience and it will also help him that England will be controlling the game. The Ukraine performance we saw against France tells us Rooney will get his chances.

Ukraine started well against the French in Donetsk, with their 4-4-2 system, but a weakness was a tendency of some of the Ukrainians to follow French players man for man, losing position and creating lots of space for the French to get through. The Ukrainian holding midfielders could not cope with the gaps created at times. The co-hosts cannot keep their team shape for a long time because they are not used to having to do so.

This means that England need only be patient. If they wait, they can use their pace and go forward and they will get their chances. If someone follows Steven Gerrard man for man and is pulled out of position, for example, Rooney will have space to receive the ball between the lines on either side of the holding midfielders.

It has been good to see Gerrard making such a difference even from the deeper role he has been assigned by the manager, Roy Hodgson. It was not just the accuracy of the cross to Andy Carroll which was important for England's first goal against Sweden, but the ability to give it just the right pace. Steven can make a 40-metre pass, with accuracy. He can see the necessary pass and make it at the same time. That is quality.