Rooney sets new England standard

England 4 Slovakia 0
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At this rate Wayne Rooney should break every significant England record from caps to goals, and he should do it before he turns 30. He will play more games than Peter Shilton, he will score more goals than Bobby Charlton and when he is finished he might well have raised the standard so high that it is another 50 years before anyone is good enough to beat it.

Never more than since he starred at Euro 2004 has Rooney looked more ready to take the international game by the scruff of the neck and change England's dismal record. On Wednesday against Ukraine he will win his 50th cap. To put that in perspective, when David Beckham was Rooney's age – 23 years and five months – he had won 19 caps. Which suggests that by the time Rooney is the age Beckham is now, 34, he could be closing in on his 150th appearance for England.

However, the ghost that tugs at Rooney's sleeve amid all this potential is that of Michael Owen's international career. A career that appeared to have been ended with the bluntest of put-downs on Saturday when Fabio Capello suggested that, despite the dearth of strikers, to call up Owen against Ukraine would be to pick a team from "history" rather than one that is competitive in the current day.

It was impossible to argue with Capello's logic. He is too much of a pragmatist to say he will never pick Owen again but for now the England manager has found a system that works: Rooney with Emile Heskey or, now he is injured, Peter Crouch. It is a system into which Owen does not fit. If anything, the Newcastle striker would be a replacement for Rooney, rather than a foil, although no-one really believes that he has the attributes for the role that Rooney fulfilled so brilliantly with his two goals against Slovakia.

Lest we forget: Owen is only 29, not 30 until December, and yet he seems much older, both in the mind's eye and in the manner in which his game has changed. The pace has gone and although he remains a great finisher, no-one is pretending he is the man he used to be. His England career began on 11 February 1998; it might well have ended on 26 March last year against France, the last time he played. Is it the case that football's teen prodigies start early and finish early too?

Owen's career is a warning to Rooney. It is a reminder that however bright you may burn at the start, it is no guarantee that you will continue to be picked until you decide to retire. Beckham will have managed close to 14 years at international level if he plays until the next World Cup – that is exceptional. Only Billy Wright, from among the greats, has played longer for England (15 years); Charlton played for 12 years; Bobby Moore played for 11 years while Alan Shearer managed only eight and retired before he was 30.

Arguably if Rooney can make his talent last as long as Beckham he could have 17 years as an international footballer. He is fast, but he does not rely on his pace; he is energetic but you could imagine the day when he slips back into midfield and uses his experience to dictate the play and guide his young team-mates. If he hangs around for long enough then they might even make him captain. The possibilities are endless.

It is not hard to see why Capello does not regard Owen as a natural partner for Rooney against Ukraine on Wednesday. With Crouch, as it was with Heskey, Rooney's strike partner is now asked to make the runs and cause the nuisance that allows the Manchester United man to score goals. The partnership of Rooney and Owen worked best at Euro 2004 but after that that they never really seemed to complement one another and if you have to pick one from two then there really is no choice.

Capello said on Saturday that his ideal team formation is one striker (presumably Crouch against Ukraine) with two behind him (Rooney and Steven Gerrard) with a platform of three further midfielders behind them. On Wednesday, fitness permitting, Crouch will smash holes for Gerrard and Rooney to run into. At times on Saturday the two Liverpudlians looked sublime and at last their talent seems to be at the forefront.

His suspension for Sunday's Aston Villa game aside, the only cloud on Rooney's horizon is Mark Lawrenson's BBC Radio Five Live allegation that the Manchester United striker has had a major falling-out with Sir Alex Ferguson. Given that the curiously indiscreet Lawrenson was right when he put his foot in it last time claiming Gerrard had told him Robbie Keane was leaving Liverpool, it is a hard one to ignore.

On Saturday, Rooney talked of his enthusiasm at "being free" in Capello's system and for one who is so used to battling with authority figures he spoke in glowing terms about the England manager. "Everyone knows what's expected of them under the manager and everyone respects him because of his previous record, you listen to him," Rooney said. "I'm enjoying it at the minute and hopefully we can qualify for the World Cup and do well there.

"I hope the next 50 caps will be even better. I'm pleased to get to 50, but I want to win a trophy and hopefully we can do that in the near future. I'm a bit more experienced now. I've played in big games at club level and that's really helped me."

He headed his first goal on Saturday from Beckham's cross and was probably offside when he ran on to Frank Lampard's ball for his second. Rooney also opened the defence for Gerrard to cross for Heskey and the first goal. Michael Carrick made the third for Lampard. England were impressive, Slovakia were dreadful and the injuries to three successive strikers – Heskey, Carlton Cole and Crouch – were the only source of concern for Capello's side.

Beat Ukraine and England will have defeated every other team in the World Cup qualification Group Six. Only the European champions Spain and the Netherlands have perfect records so far in European qualifying. Neither of them, of course, have anyone quite like the remarkable Rooney, who at last seems to be doing for England what he has long promised to do.

England (4-4-2): James (Portsmouth); Johnson (Portsmouth), Terry (Chelsea), Upson (West Ham), A Cole (Chelsea); Lennon (Tottenham), Lampard (Chelsea), Barry (Aston Villa), Gerrard (Liverpool); Heskey (Aston Villa), Rooney (Manchester United). Substitutions: C Cole (West Ham) for Heskey (15); Crouch (Portsmouth ) for C Cole, 35; Beckham (Milan) for Lennon, h-t; Downing (Middlesbrough) for Gerrard, h-t; Foster (Man United) for James, h-t; Carrick (Man United) for Crouch, 74.

Slovakia (4-4-1-1): Senecky (Ankaraspor); Pekarik (Wolfsburg), Valachovic (Slovan Bratislava), Skrtel (Liverpool), Cech (West Bromwich Albion); Sestak (Bochum), Karhan (Mainz), Zabavnik (Terek Grozny), Hamsik (Napoli); Kozak (Slovan Bratislava); Vittek (Lille). Substitutions: Jendrisek (Kaiserslautern) for Cech, h-t; Holosko (Besiktas) for Vittek, h-t; Sapara (Rosenborg) for Kozak; Jakubko (FC Moscow) for Sesak, 72; Mintal (Nuremberg) for Hamsik, 78; Strba (Zilina) for Karhan, 83.

Referee: A Hamer (Luxembourg).

Booked: Slovakia Sapara.

Man of the match: Rooney.

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