James Lawton: England ask too much from Rooney bursts of brilliance

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It's all very well saying that England have the man to beat the world in Wayne Rooney but no one can really do that, not on his own and not even Diego Maradona when you get right down to it.

Not when one disaster is piled upon another as swiftly as it was here last night, which is to say as quickly as the night swoops down on the highveld.

Suddenly, Rooney and his team-mates knew that they had two huge tasks. One was to beat a United States team who had made an impressively spirited response to an early setback. The other was to hang on to what was left of dwindling credibility as serious contenders for this 19th World Cup, challengers who might just ride home on the sheer virtuosity of the Manchester United striker.

Rooney, though, faced a handicap that wasn't thrust upon Maradona, the player who no doubt came closest to achieving the mythic task of carrying his team on his back en route to the highest peak in world football. Back in 1986, Argentina's goalkeeper didn't let the ball roll softly into his net in a way to demoralise any defence, especially one already straining under some not inconsiderable heat.

Unfortunately, Rooney's team-mate Robert Green did it here last night and suddenly the superb momentum England created with a fourth-minute goal by Steven Gerrard was in ruins. Rooney's reaction was to surge away from the centre circle in a manner that seemed more than anything like a fit of rage and the US defence had to scramble desperately to, as they say in their parts, head him off at the pass.

Rooney's intensity did not slacken, indeed there were moments when he seemed about to unfurl extraordinary pieces of virtuosity, once when he signalled to Ashley Cole and broke into open space to receive a through ball. The conception was stunning in its speed and its vision, but the execution failed by a fraction.

As the game began to dribble away, he sent one shot swirling just wide of the post from 20 yards. Then he delivered an exquisite pass to the feet of Shaun Wright-Phillips, who shot against the USA goal-keeper Tim Howard.

This was an impressive response to the possibility that once again his World Cup ambitions had been entrapped by frustration.

The blows came in quick succession. James Milner had recovered from sickness but his performance was nightmarish and when he was cautioned for an abject display of frustration in a late tackle on Steve Cherundolo, Fabio Capello called him off and sent on Wright-Phillips.

It seemed to have worked despite the American menace most impressively represented by the big, quick Jozy Altidore. England were steadier, more composed, and Emile Heskey was again proving that if he can only fire blanks in front of goal then he can certainly load up the gun and pass it to Rooney under the most vigorous of physical attention.

The crisis might indeed have passed if Green had not created the moment that will haunt him forever, when a tame shot from Clint Dempsey bounced out of his rigid hands and trickled over the line.

When the goalkeeper walked off the field at half-time his face was an object from which most of England surely felt obliged to avert its gaze, not in rage but sheer erupting sadness.

A fine, brave goalkeeper who appeared to have won his battle over rivals David James and Joe Hart with a rising graph of form coming into the tournament, his place in the next game is surely at risk now. Hart is a young goalkeeper of impressive form and untouched by the kind of experience which tore down Robert Green last night.

It is just one of the dilemmas facing Capello now, however. He has to attend again to the failures of Frank Lampard and Gerrard to produce the joint effect which, individually, Gerrard made seem like a formality when he stroked home England's goal so beautifully.

The chances are that Capello will continue with Heskey alongside Rooney. He will remember, you have to believe, those moments when he so strongly supported the theory that his team might indeed beat the world.