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Paul Hayward: International greatness is slipping by Wayne after another insipid tournament


Wayne Rooney surrounded during the game against Italy

Wayne Rooney surrounded during the game against Italy

Wayne Rooney surrounded during the game against Italy

WAYNE Rooney will want to avert his eyes when Cristiano Ronaldo continues his mission to win euro 2012 on his own for Portugal in their semi-final against Spain. International greatness is passing Rooney by while his old Manchester United comrade lights up the new frontier of Poland and Ukraine.

With his 54 per cent pass completion rate, and drenched in sweat, the most gifted English footballer since Paul Scholes slipped off the edge off this tournament no nearer to fulfilling the promise of euro 2004.

By the time the 2014 World Cup comes around in Brazil it will be 10 years since he made any appreciable impact on a tournament, unless you count his stamp on Ricardo Carvalho’s privates in Gelsenkirchen six summers ago.

Rooney’s attitude and temperament in the lead-up to England's latest disastrous attempts to pot a ball from 12-yards were beyond reproach. He was a happy tourist, fully engaged with the task.

As Roy Hodgson said at yesterday’s inquest: “He spent a lot of time [during his two-match suspension] working with the other players, talking to the other players.”

After a stellar season with United (27 goals in 34 league appearances), Rooney returned to Hodgson’s side for the victory over Ukraine like a star signing.

The folly of his kick at the legs of a Montenegro defender in Podgorica was pushed aside in favour of rejoicing at the end of his ban.

But he owed England a debt for forcing them to contest the first two euro 2012 group games without him. The first instalment was his 29th international goal: a close-range header in Dontesk that placed him one behind Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse and Alan Shearer on England’s all-time list.

That false dawn was exposed against Italy in Kiev, where Rooney seemed to overheat after half an hour and was largely ineffective thereafter, though he did manage to dispatch his penalty.

All the talk of Andre Pirlo’s brilliance inevitably swung the arc light back on Rooney.

Hodgson for instance, said: “Everyone accepts that Pirlo is a world-class player and he had a world-class night. I have to probably accept that one or two of our players who also have those sort of qualities didn’t reach that height.

"In the knockout stage you really are hoping the player you know can turn the game on its head and turn the game in your favour is flying and able to do so. Of course that wasn’t the case for us and so it becomes more of a battling team performance.”

By implication Rooney, Ashley Young were foremost in that category. Rooney himself said: “It was a horrible way to go out. We are all gutted. It was a tough game and we all worked hard.

‘‘To lose on pens is a horrible feeling for everyone. We can hold our heads up high. There are a lot of young players in the squad. It’s a sad feeling now but that will help us going into the qualifiers for the next tournament.”

More statesmanlike these days on England duty, he was nevertheless a pale version of the warrior United fans are accustomed to seeing; and for that blame must be ascribed largely to his indiscipline in Montenegro.

Every day the most potent players walk the high wire of self-control. Ignoring provocation becomes an art with a payback. They are on the field for the first game of a tournament, not spectating from the stands.

Rooney’s postseason trip to Las Vegas prior to joining the England camp was being mentioned by some as another example of the difference between him and Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.

It seemed harmless enough. But there is no denying the fitness deficit he displayed against Italy. United discovered early in his Old Trafford career that during gaps between games he loses sharpness quickly: a product, partly, of his bovine physique.

“Well, we haven’t noticed anything with his fitness levels, to be frank, “Hodgson protested. “We’ve monitored them and in training he has looked very fit.

"In the first game he didn’t show any particular signs of lacking any fitness and he played the 120 minutes last night [against Italy]. I think what you might be saying is that you’re a bit disappointed with his performance and maybe thought he could have played better.”

Was there not a link? Hodgson responded: “It’s not necessarily related to this. You could put fitness down to anything. That was the classic Italian trick. Every time an Italian team loses a game, you hear they’re not fit.

‘‘You can put a lot of things down to fitness, but there was no reason for us to doubt his. His running stats in the training sessions and the games were actually very good.

"But I think we put a lot of expectations on him. When he missed the first two games we were all believing that what we need to do now was get to the third game and Wayne Rooney will win us the championships.

"That maybe was too much to ask of him. He certainly tried very hard, but he didn’t have his best game. I think he would admit that.”

The national Messiah role sits more heavily on him than we thought it would, given his healthy ego. When Hodgson was answering a question to that effect Steven Gerrard, the captain, nodded constantly.

Hodgson said: “I think had Pirlo played poorly, it might have affected the Italians’ performance. I think in all top international teams you’re looking at one, two, possibly three individuals that everyone recognises as being exceptional, world-class talents, and when you get to the big stage, you’re hoping those players perform and show they’re world-class talents — like Maradona winning Argentina a World Cup with his performances.”

Last week Hodgson mentioned Rooney in the same paragraph as Pele. In Kiev, the comparison worked only in relation to Pele’s efforts in promoting a product for men with problems in the bedroom department.

Against Italy, regrettably, Rooney could not rise to the occasion.