Rooney 'blessing' has England praying for World Cup fitness

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Wayne Rooney's remarkable ascent to the top of English football was confirmed yesterday when Gary Neville said the 19-year-old striker had become the man the players believe can win them the World Cup in Germany next summer and that England were "blessed" to have him.

Wayne Rooney's remarkable ascent to the top of English football was confirmed yesterday when Gary Neville said the 19-year-old striker had become the man the players believe can win them the World Cup in Germany next summer and that England were "blessed" to have him.

After a Rooney-inspired second half that left England 4-0 winners over Northern Ireland on Saturday, Neville said that the influence of the teenager, earning just his 22nd cap, was so vital that it was imperative he was fit next summer. The shift in the balance of the team was made clear by the defender, who reflected the views of the rest of the squad when he described the teenager as the side's "great player".

Neville said: "We've got to make sure he's fit for the World Cup next year. Last year we lost him in the European Championships. And while the absence of one player should never break a team, I'm pretty certain that if he'd have stayed on the pitch it might have been a different story for us.

"That's the fine line that we tread. If you lose your great player - France lose [Thierry] Henry, for example, or Italy lose [Francesco] Totti - then usually it's your form player that wins those tournaments for you.

"So it's a case of making sure that he's available and fit in the games going into the World Cup," continued Neville, who was the most senior player in the England team on Saturday. "There aren't many players who can run with the ball, not just in England but in all of Europe. There are very few who can pick it up in central areas and go past players. He's one of them and we're blessed to have him.

"We've got to nurture him and look after him and make sure he's flying next year, hopefully in the World Cup finals."

The recognition that Rooney, who will train with England today at their hotel outside Newcastle, has become the key for his country next summer also came from Northern Ireland's former Manchester United winger Keith Gillespie. The 30-year-old said that, despite a disappointing first half for England, he believed that Sven Goran Eriksson's side had a chance to win the tournament next summer.

Gillespie said: "They could win the World Cup - they are that good. It is a young squad, they don't have that many players over the age of 25 and 26. At times in the second half we were chasing shadows."

David Beckham is expected to be fit to play against Azerbaijan on Wednesday despite a persistent back problem and Eriksson's only other injury concern will be Steven Gerrard, who took a kick to his ankle but should also be ready.

Eriksson acknowledged that his side had lacked width but defended the contribution of Beckham, who looked far from his best and drifted from the right wing into the middle of the pitch. "Yes, there was a bit of frustration but after a while he went wider," the England coach said. "We talked about it on the bench and that's what Steve McClaren went down to ask him to do in the first half. We asked Gary and David to make sure that one of them at least was always wide when we had the ball because then it would be easier to open up Northern Ireland a little bit."

The Northern Ireland manager, Lawrie Sanchez, whose side play away in Poland on Wednesday, said that Rooney had a "God-given talent" that would have to be properly nurtured. "His future is so bright if he looks after himself physically," Sanchez said. "I am sure England will look after Rooney and he is at a big club like United, where I am sure he can touch the sky. He has the capability. Whether he fulfils it or not is down to Rooney's own personal desire to do it."

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