James Lawton: Rooney recovers creative powers so sadly missing in South Africa
Saturday 04 September 2010
For a little while the strangest, warmest fantasy unfolded. England might not be the most devastating team in the world but they were one with life and coherence and perhaps even a future.
It was almost as though the World Cup had never happened, was still another trial and adventure just the other side of the horizon – or, maybe, we should even make that a rainbow. Far from being a figure of ridicule, Fabio Capello was again a considerable football man.
You might even have been excused believing he had a list of achievements as long as the Grand Canal and that when he talked about the continuing value of a quaint old system known as 4-4-2 it didn't necessarily mean he should be sent off home to Switzerland with a warm blanket and a watchful St Bernard.
There were other improbable developments. Wayne Rooney looked as if wearing the England shirt was no longer a form of torture dreamed up by the Spanish Inquisition. Steven Gerrard, who came home from South Africa with the desperate sense that his England years may indeed have been consigned to permanent frustration, survived a villainous tackle from the inappropriately named Stanislav Angelov and then played with a brimming optimism. Theo Walcott confirmed the impression he gave coming into the game. Not only wasn't he locked into some massive sulk over his exclusion from the World Cup squad, he too displayed the mood of a man anxious to create a much more promising future.
At 21, and with a more consistent unveiling of the speed and touch that on a couple of occasions reduced the left side of Bulgaria's defence to the deepest confusion, Walcott looks eminently capable of claiming the right side of England's attack for some time.
But if Walcott has dynamic qualities, there is still no question about the England player who can make almost anything seem possible with one stroke of his foot. Rooney did that when he delivered a sublime floating pass to the feet of Ashley Cole in the third minute and though the Chelsea full-back, who is playing through the end of his ill-starred celebrity marriage with extraordinary commitment and passion, failed to convert immediately, he did manage to get the ball to Jermain Defoe, who scored the first of three goals converted with impressive calm.
For Rooney it was the launching point of a performance which while occasionally subject to some of the irritation that marked so much of his World Cup experience mostly spoke of a superbly luxurious talent re-announcing itself. Early in the second half his exquisite attempt to chip goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov was thwarted only by a fingertip. What could not be denied, however, was the growing reminder that Rooney's creative powers can be exploited from pretty much anywhere he finds himself. Certainly when Defoe delivered the killing second goal after 61 minutes there was fresh evidence that when the moment is right no one can deliver a better weighted, or more perfectly measured, pass than Rooney. So why didn't he produce such gems in places like Rustenburg and Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein? Was it simply a matter of playing while less than fully fit — or were the interminable hours on the highveld too much of a trial?
We will probably never know for sure about either of those questions, nor perhaps the burden of an accumulated weight of expectation piling up alongside ever growing wealth.
None of that seemed quite so pressing last night, however, as Rooney produced some of the best and most subtle of his talent. Capello was out of his seat when Bulgaria, who at times were impressively sprightly and skilful despite the early discouragement, were cut open by a superb pass from him along the left to James Milner, who crossed for Adam Johnson.
The Manchester City wideman, who came on with a now trademarked confidence, missed but then Capello was mollified soon enough when he scored with great panache a few minutes later.
Defoe scored another and by now the idea that Capello had come here on trial seemed somewhat bizarre.
He had been sneered at for retaining much of the old guard and a formation which was apparently well past its time and his purpose. He had been depicted with the ears of a donkey, but without saying anything new, imposing any fresh imperatives, he was suddenly the master of Wembley rather than an object of growing national ridicule. How could this be so? Maybe it was because England's players, and not least Rooney, chose the moment to remind everyone that they could indeed play this game passably well.
The reaction at Wembley was predictably warm. Soon enough there was the sound of "Rule Britannia" — and, who knows, perhaps even a whisper of "Forza Fabio".
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