Fresh talent needed to liven up jaded little and large act

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The Independent Football

Amid the horrors at one end of the pitch it was easy to ignore the faults at the other. Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney are supposed to be the classic striking combination of big target man and smaller predator. When Steve McClaren named both for the double-header with Macedonia and Croatia, he did not demur at the description of Crouch as "undroppable" and praised the returning Rooney as a "great" player for whom there would always be a place.

The uncomfortable fact, emphasised last night, was that they have rarely profited together. Before the World Cup their partnership amounted to a mere 31 minutes spread over two matches, and in Germany that total was extended by only an hour and a half.

Saturday's game at Old Trafford was the first start as a partnership, in which Rooney was clearly still suffering from a lack of sharpness and Crouch emerged as a force only towards the end. By the final whistle last night the Liverpool man was sitting in the dug-out after possibly his least effective international; Rooney was a picture of frustration and the balance sheet read two games together and not a single goal for England. On Saturday, Rooney had only one opportunity to chalk up his first international goal for a year, set up for him by Crouch after the hour.

It took almost as long last night for a recurrence. All tactical niceties were bypassed, as were eight Croatian opponents, by Paul Robinson's huge punt and Crouch for once was able to nudge the ball on for Rooney to fizz a shot over the bar.

For a while, until the utterly demoralising effect of conceding two goals in quick succession, Rooney was sparked into action. But within a quarter of an hour, as the ball was mockingly lobbed over his head, Rooney was too downcast even to chase it. Forcing Stipe Pletikosa into his first save of the match in the 89th minute from a fierce 25-yard drive will not have consoled him any more than it did the millions watching at home.

Had Dean Ashton had his chance as planned for McClaren's opening match against Greece in August, who knows how the first-choice attack might have looked by now?

Crouch undroppable? Rooney indispensable? Ashton's predicated return around Christmas and Andy Johnson's form for Everton may give McClaren cause to think again before competitive hostilities are resumed in March.

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