Rooney facing race against time for Euros
Headache for Hodgson as Kane and Vardy put pressure on captain
Wayne Rooney is likely to have less than a month to prove his fitness to Roy Hodgson with the England captain targeting Manchester United's game against Aston Villa a fortnight on Saturday as his comeback from injury.
The United striker has been out of action since damaging ligaments in his right knee in the 2-1 defeat at Sunderland on February 13 and his place in England's starting XI is under growing threat from Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy.
Yet it can be revealed that Rooney faced the threat of an even more severe injury that would have ruled him out of the European Championship finals altogether after being instructed by his United manager, Louis van Gaal, to play through the pain against Sunderland.
Despite Van Gaal's previous claims that Rooney had wanted to carry on at the Stadium of Light, it is understood that the striker actually asked to come off around the 65-minute mark of the game after realising his injury was serious.
Yet, with United drawing 1-1 and in desperate need of a win in their battle for Champions League qualification, Van Gaal asked Rooney to play on, a request to which the player adhered out of respect and a determination to try to win the game.
It is unclear if that extra 25 minutes on the field aggravated the injury but subsequent scans showed that if the tear had been any deeper Rooney would have faced the prospect of up to nine months on the sidelines. Such a lay-off would, in addition to ruling him out of the Euros, also have prohibited Rooney's involvement in a planned testimonial at Old Trafford on August 3, which will raise money for a host of charities, and forced him to miss the opening months of next season.
Hodgson is due to name his squad for the Euros in France this summer on May 12, which would give Rooney just five games for United, excluding a potential FA Cup semi-final against Everton on April 23, to demonstrate his fitness to the England manager if he returns at home to Villa.
United could play a further two games - against Bournemouth in the Premier League and possibly the FA Cup final - before Hodgson must submit his final 23-man squad for the tournament on May 31.
After tonight's friendly against Holland at Wembley, for which Rooney will be part of ITV's commentary team, England have two more friendlies before the submission deadline, with matches against Turkey on May 22 and Australia five days later.
Rooney has traditionally taken considerable time to get back up to speed after lengthy absences and Hodgson has insisted that the 30-year-old will not be selected solely on reputation, despite being the country's skipper and all-time leading goalscorer.
Whereas Rooney has laboured for much of this season, despite a purple patch when he scored seven goals in eight games for United in the wake of being dropped for the St Stephen's Day defeat by Stoke City, and now faces a race to prove his fitness, Kane and Vardy have been in outstanding form.
The Spurs and Leicester City strikers' free-scoring exploits, coupled with the return from injury of Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck, have given Hodgson a welcome headache in attacking terms.
Barring a serious setback in his recovery from injury, Rooney will board the plane to France, but while the debate is likely to continue to centre over whether he should start, Ross Barkley is adamant that the captain's experience will be vital to England's youngsters at the tournament.
Barkley will be one of a series of gifted youngsters in Hodgson's squad as long as he is fit and the 22-year-old midfielder is adamant that Rooney will have a big role to play on and off the pitch.
The current England squad contains eight players with less than 10 caps, while Rooney has 109 international appearances to his name and has represented England at five major tournaments.
"Wayne is the captain, he leads the side," Barkley said. "He helps us younger lads with the experience he has had in the past tournaments and qualifying stages."
Having made a substitutes' appearance in the dramatic 3-2 victory over Germany on Friday, Barkley will start against Holland and is certain England will benefit from having real competition for places.
"There are a lot of options," he said. "We have got a few lads who aren't in the squad like Wazza and we have got goals all around the squad. That's good for us to all see because we know the goals can come from anywhere. But we still have a lot to learn and we have a lot of games before we get to the Euros, so we are staying level-headed and we know we have got to stay focused to keep improving."
Holland defender Daley Blind said of his Manchester United team-mate Rooney:
"I think when a player like Wayne is fit then he is a very special player and he can make everything better. When he is fit you are definitely going to need him, he brings something special to the team.
"He is exceptional and he has exceptional qualities and can make something better. For me it is not even a question."
England v Netherland, ITV, 8pm.