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Long used to playing a supporting role, Wayne Rooney finds himself alone at the front for England and Manchester United.
Long used to playing a supporting role, Wayne Rooney finds himself alone at the front for England and Manchester United.
Long used to playing a supporting role, Wayne Rooney finds himself alone at the front for England and Manchester United.

Rooney must lead from the front

Marcotti's man Club and country know Wayne Rooney has to be at his best if they are to be successful this season.

There is nowhere to hide for Wayne Rooney. Not that he would, he never has. But now he is called upon to step up and carry both England and Manchester United on his back. And if he does not do it it is hard to see who will. At Everton, he was the wonderkid. He broke records as a teenager, just as he was supposed to. The moments of genius came, but nobody was expecting them.

He landed at United with a splash - notching a Champions League hat-trick on his debut - but he was always the sidekick. First he was Tonto to Ruud Van Nistelrooy's Lone Ranger. And, after the Dutchman left, Cristiano Ronaldo took over for the next three seasons. Now, he too is gone. When Rooney contemplates his teammates he cannot escape the fact that he is now The Man. There is a talented but erratic 28-year-old Bulgarian, who has average 12 league goals a season in his Premier League career and has a tendency to disappear in big games (Dimitar Berbatov) and an injury-ravaged goalscorer whose body has enabled him to start an average of just 14 league matches since 2005 (Michael Owen). Plus, there are two 18-year-olds (Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda) and a 22-year-old who scored a single goal in 27 appearances last season in the French League (Gabriel Obertan).

Things do not get much better when he looks further back, to midfield: two guys who will be 35 and 36 respectively by Christmas (Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs), a 21-year-old Brazilian who made just eleven starts last year (Anderson) and a couple of holding midfielders (Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick). Even less help looks to be coming from the wings, where he finds a guy signed from Wigan who has scored half as many league goals in his career than Ronaldo scored just two seasons back (Antonio Valencia), a somewhat erratic winger (Nani) and a South Korean workhorse (Park Ji Sung). Sure, the defence is solid, but who is going to take the game by the scruff of the neck? The man in the mirror, that is who.

England do provide a better supporting cast, at least in terms of match-winners. Steven Gerrard for one, though he has saved his best performances for Liverpool, at least until now. Frank Lampard scores plenty for Chelsea, though his ratio declines quickly once he steps into an England shirt. David Beckham can and has stepped up in an England shirt, but he turns 35 in May and, these days, is really only a threat on dead balls.

More worrying is the lack of a top-drawer strike partner. None of Rooney's colleagues up front even play in the Champions League, which tells its own story. Fabio Capello has all but said it: unless the Gerrard we saw in Istanbul shows up and takes over, England will sink or soar in South Africa by Rooney's performances. Pressure? He is one of those rare animals who either does not feel it or thrives on it. Otherwise he wouldn't be on the verge of breaking into the top ten of England's all-time leading scorers at 23.

His two footballing mentors, Capello and Sir Alex Ferguson, have set the table for him. Last year, they focused on turning him into one of the greatest support strikers in the world. Rooney sacrificed himself out wide, part winger, part fullback, part creative force, supplying the front man. No more. The Rooney who would run himself into the ground at the service of others now must become the offensive terminus for club and country.

"The biggest compliment I can give him is that even when he plays badly he makes an enormous contribution," Capello says. "Rarely do you see a man with so much ability work so hard. But now his position has changed and he'll have to adapt." Is he ready? We will find out soon enough. What is certain is that if he comes up short it will notbe for lack of work rate. If anything, it will be for lack of a supporting cast.

Gabriele Marcotti is an expert on European football gmarcotti@thenational.ae

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