There are only so many times you can ask Wayne Rooney whether he thinks his lack of goals for England are a problem. And, judging by his response to the question on Saturday night, only so many times that Rooney is prepared to answer it before the kind of incident which ends with someone having to call security. Nevertheless, the Rooney conundrum is one of the biggest facing Fabio Capello as he decides the best way to take on Croatia on Wednesday in the game that will define his reign.
A two-goal victory is no disaster against Andorra, whose five men at the back, four in midfield, fit, well-organised and no game plan other than defensive clearances is not an easy proposition for any team to play against. Russia won the same fixture 1-0, although Germany did spoil things by winning 6-0 away against Liechtenstein on Saturday. There are major questions facing Capello about what he has learnt before Zagreb on Wednesday and most of them centre upon Rooney, arguably his most talented player, who against Andorra played out the same depressing tale of a striker who is nowhere near his best.
An uncomfortable conversation between Rooney and the press afterwards was accompanied by the kind of dark looks from Rooney that suggested this would be the wrong time to try to convince him that a deep and meaningful discussion of his innermost fears and insecurities might be in order. It went as follows:
Question [towards end of interview]: "A lot has been made of your goalscoring record with England. What do you make of it? You haven't been amongst the goals so much..."
Rooney: "I've no problem with it." Question: "It's not on your mind at all?" Rooney: "No." Question: "Because you're doing your job for your team?" Rooney: "Of course. We won tonight. It's a new campaign, a new start and, hopefully, we can do well in this campaign."
It was not the moment to remind Rooney that his ratio of goals to minutes on the pitch for England has now risen to one every 228. He played with Jermain Defoe in the first half, missing a great chance when Theo Walcott cut the ball back to him. In the second he played with Emile Heskey, in what was ostensibly a 4-4-2 formation but which did have hints of the 4-3-2-1 system – with Rooney and Joe Cole just behind the Wigan striker – that Capello employed against the Czech Republic last month.
How does Capello get the best out of Rooney? The England manager said it had not been the Manchester United man's best game, although he pointed out that it was Rooney's pass that made the second of Joe Cole's goals. "He [Rooney] needs space to run and to work," Capello said. "I hope in the next game he will find the space." Later he said that Rooney needed more time this season to find his form. Later still Capello said: "At this moment he [Rooney] is playing well. He is not fantastic, but for me he is important for the team."
Important but, at the moment, he is by no means crucial. It seems that Capello has dismissed any notion of playing Rooney on the left of a five-man midfield, which was where he was deployed most effectively by Sir Alex Ferguson last season. "No, I know Alex played in Rome [in the Champions League game, 1-1, last season] with Rooney on the left wing. That was an idea for Alex. But I have 23 players, I have to choose the best players for every position."
When Capello starts sketching out his team for the World Cup qualifier against Croatia on Wednesday he will have many different variations to ponder. Walcott or David Beckham? 4-3-2-1, 4-4-2 or 4-5-1? Defoe or Heskey? Rooney will, as ever, be on the team sheet because, for this player at least, every England manager seems prepared to wait for ever. So how to get the best out of him? In Walcott's favour, he complements Rooney with a speed of movement not possessed by Heskey. Walcott might not have Joe Cole's ability to read a game but he is potentially a force on the counter-attack, which is presumably how England intend to play against a country who have not lost at home in 14 years.
Walcott was, in Capello's words, "incredible" in the opening stages against Andorra but, as on Saturday, he seems to drift out of matches rather too easily. Once Andorra realised his threat they crowded him out on the right wing. If Walcott plays on the right in Croatia he will be up against the experienced, and quick, Daniel Pranjic, who plays at left-back but is really a winger and likes to get forward. Is Walcott up to the job?
In reality, Capello is likely to regard playing Joe Cole and Walcott in the same team as too much of a risk against a side as good as Croatia. After scoring two goals which saved England, Cole is deserving of his place ahead of Stewart Downing, who looked jittery again. The first was volleyed in from Joleon Lescott's knockdown, the second slipped past the Andorra goalkeeper Koldo from Rooney's pass. Against Croatia, Wes Brown is a more solid bet than Glen Johnson at right-back, and Rio Ferdinand should be back in Lescott's place.
As if Capello needed reminding, it is not just the players he currently has at his disposal who are not completely happy. In an interview yesterday, Steven Gerrard, recovering from a groin operation, bemoaned the fact that he had only played for England in his favoured central midfield position five times out of 68. "What can you do?" asked Gerrard plaintively.
So Capello asks himself the question over the next few days whether this England team are ready to face Croatia with a radical departure from the past, with Walcott in the team to try to spark Rooney's performance. Or does he look at the odds and opt for experience, which would probably mean picking David Beckham, and hope for some joy on the counter-attack or from a free-kick. The overwhelming sense is that Capello will go with conservative instincts and hope against hope, as his predecessors did, that Rooney will finally come alive.
'I could coach England better than Capello'
His players almost embarrassed England's on the pitch but now the Andorran coach David Rodrigo has attempted to discomfit Fabio Capello by claiming he would do a better job with the England team than the Italian.
Capello appeared bemused by Andorra's defensive approach even after their determined defence had been breached by two goals from substitute Joe Cole early in the second half. But Rodrigo said: "Mr Capello says he does not quite understand why a small team like Andorra, when losing 2-0, is still in the defensive position.
"I can tell Mr Capello, he can try coaching Andorra and I will try coaching England – I am sure that we will beat Andorra by more than 2-0.
"I see the English media make jokes about the players of Andorra because they are not professionals and some of them are working outside of football.
"But those 11 guys make the English supporters go against their own team – just like they did two years ago. What does that say?
"Then it means whenever Andorra can manage to play 11 professional players, England will lose the game."
Rodrigo added: "We understand we cannot beat England but, even though we lost on the scoreboard 2-0,we are proud. It is not easy to play against England. From our point of view, it is no consolation but we have to say we achieved a moral victory from the game."
Andorra (4-5-1): Koldo (FC Andorra); Ayala (Santa Coloma), Sonejee (FC Andorra), I Lima (Triestina), T Lima (Eivissa), Txema (FC Andorra); Puyol (Manresa), Andorra (Alcazar), Marcio (Teruel), Jimenez (FC Andorra); Silva (Merida). Substitutes used: Toscano (Alcazar) for Silva (62), Vales (Sabadell) for Puyol (90), Fernandez (Santa Coloma) for T Lima (90).
England (4-4-2): James (Portsmouth); Johnson (Portsmouth), Terry (Chelsea), Lescott (Everton), A Cole (Chelsea); Walcott (Arsenal), Barry (Aston Villa), Lampard (Chelsea), Downing (Middlesbrough); Rooney (Manchester United), Defoe (Portsmouth). Substitutes used: Heskey (Wigan) for Defoe (h-t), J Cole (Chelsea) for Downing (h-t), Beckham (LA Galaxy) for Lampard (81).
Referee: C Cakir (Turkey).
Booked: Andorra Silva, Marcio, T Lima.
Man of the match: J Cole.
Group Six results and fixtures
Results so far: Kazakhstan 3 Andorra 0; Croatia 3 Kazakhstan 0; Andorra 0 England 2; Ukraine 1 Belarus 0.
England's remaining fixtures: Wednesday: Croatia (a); 11 Oct Kazakhstan (h); 15 Oct Belarus (a); 1 April 2009 Ukraine (h); 1 April Kazakhstan (a); 10 June Andorra (h); 9 Sept Croatia (h); 10 Oct Ukraine (a); 14 Oct Belarus (h).
A world to win FA headhunts for 2018 bid team
*The Football Association is advertising the positions of the team to lead England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Four posts are up for grabs: a bid chief executive, who will lead the team; a chief operating officer, to run day-to-day matters, a director technical bid, who has to ensure the bid document is on the Fifa president Sepp Blatter's desk by autumn 2010; and a director of communications, who will handle all that troublesome PR. The bid also has to leave a lasting legacy worldwide.
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