James Lawton: Inspired Gerrard clicks with United man to promise untold riches
Monday 30 March 2009
No wonder Fabio Capello so quickly folded up Steven Gerrard as though he was a newly minted bank note and put him away for a day when he needs something rather closer to maximum spending power, as in this coming Wednesday when victory over Ukraine will all but guarantee a place in next year's World Cup finals.
Slovakia were opponents conquered by the mere rattle of small change but not before Gerrard in his first-half appearance was able to debunk the theory that for all their individual assets he and Wayne Rooney were unlikely to ever forge a truly coherent playing relationship.
Rooney ran his way out of the anger which flared so disturbingly again at Fulham the previous weekend – and was also apparently expressed in an eye-popping collision with Sir Alex Ferguson – most spectacularly, only after Gerrard had showered and changed and sat, statesmanlike, at the touchline.
But by then Rooney's superbly taken goals and David Beckham's latest walk-on part, in which he was able to stroll virtually unchallenged past Bobby Moore's outfield record of 108 caps, were very much adornments after the most crucial fact.
This was that Rooney, running free up front and with all his native intelligence, did indeed have the capacity to make a sweet alliance with the currently inspired Gerrard.
Their interchange before Emile Heskey's opening goal was so natural, and so irresistible, it might have been carried on a gust of wind.
At 23 Rooney is still in need of emergency anger management whenever the ball does not roll so sweetly for him, or when he is nursing some passing sense of grievance, but the good news is that the turbulence of his nature blows itself out a lot more easily than the abandonment of his extraordinary ability to make football at times seem so easy.
It has always been the mark of a great player and that Rooney enjoys this status has never been compromised by his susceptibility to the red mist. Against Slovakia, he was an unbroken source of both pressure and creativity, and with such movement and wit in front of him, Gerrard looked so comfortably at home he might have played for several hours instead of a mere 45 minutes without one of his trademarked sighs of frustration.
Naturally, Capello looked as contended as any Italian cat presented with a large bowl of cappuccino.
No doubt Ukraine, with Liverpool reject Andrei Voronin threatening to maintain the goal stream that has delighted his current employers, Hertha Berlin, and Andrei Shevchenko hoping to prove to an English audience that his own stay here was just a fleeting case of misadventure, will provide a much sterner test than Slovakia, but the England manager has plenty of reasons to believe in further unhindered progress to South Africa next year.
Chief among them is the growing certainty of key players. On Saturday this was most evident in the play of Rooney and Gerrard, so much so that it was almost as if Capello withdrew the latter not so much as a precaution but through fear of everybody, and also fate, being over-exposed to an extremely good thing.
Most evident was that which has always been the most striking aspect of the ability of Rooney, a natural football intelligence of sometimes stunning proportions. His innate sense of how to arrive at points of maximum opportunity at the age of 17 persuaded no less a judge than Arsène Wenger to proclaim that he had never seen a more promising young English player, a verdict that the Arsenal manager no doubt would have willingly confirmed as the Slovakian defenders were so relentlessly put on their wrong feet.
Beneath the waves of fury, Rooney is a runner and a thinker. Gerrard, it has always seemed, relies more on moments of inspiration than a constant involvement at the heart of a game. On Saturday, though, we often seemed close to a perfect fusion.
The rest, including Beckham's latest milestone, was predictable enough. Beckham's delivery of the ball, by and large, is still exceptional, but of course he cannot begin to match the pace or vitality of those such as Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips and if there is any intrigue in this equation it mostly concerns at which point the manager will decide that the veteran's lack of mobility, against the most serious opposition, has passed the point of being merely critical.
One reality may have been slow to dawn on some of us, and not least in this quarter. It concerns the foolishness of equating the number of caps Beckham wins with his all-time standing in the rankings of great English players. That statistically speaking Beckham's contribution to the national team now exceeds those of Sir Bobby Charlton and Moore surely makes the whole exercise palpably absurd.
According to Capello, who has got so much right, Beckham still has a role to play for England just so long as he continues to be involved in something more serious than the club football practised by his principal employers, Los Angeles Galaxy.
Inevitably, though, this issue is made to look increasingly marginal by so many of the signposts to the future hammered into the ground by Capello.
The manager is increasingly comfortable in placing maximum trust in players like Rooney and Gerrard and here his reward could scarcely have been greater. Rooney and Gerrard had moments beautifully detached from the old strivings and bogus swagger of underachieving England. They had both simplicity and poise, and the hunch here is that such qualities will again be paraded in the most demanding conditions of Wednesday night.
Not only did Rooney's anger diminish in the flow of sweet football. So too did the collective insecurity of a team which may just be beginning to believe in its own powers. Capello has been in charge scarcely more than a year. When you remember this, you can only say he is moving at breathtaking pace.
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