Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Rooney In The Hand Is Worth...

Euphoria. That’s the word used by the BBC to describe the reaction to the news that Wayne Rooney has been named to the English squad, and should be fit to play in Germany.

Not so fast. While the “decisive scan” has satisfied Rooney’s doctors, and lawyers for the team and the FA, there’s still the question of when Rooney will play.

England was eliminated in the Euro 2004 quarterfinal, after Rooney bowed out in the 27th minute with his first broken foot. The team lost on penalties to Portugal.

England cannot survive the elimination round of the World Cup if Rooney is injured again.

Deciding when he returns to the pitch is a delicate balance. Rooney’s health should not be risked before he’s ‘match fit,’ and I wouldn’t send him out onto a wet pitch (probably because I broke a metatarsal during a game on a wet field). Yet the best way to build stamina is in a game situation. Moreover, Rooney needs to get back into the flow of the game so as to not make a critical error in an elimination match.

From a team perspective, there is one other critical factor: it is essential that England qualify first in its group. England will have to beat or tie Sweden, leaving little to no room for surrendering goal-differential or a victory to Trinidad or Paraguay.

Why is it critical? Assuming Germany places first in Group A (a near certainty), the second-place finisher in Group B is going to have to make it through the home-side in the second round. The record for home-sides in World Cups is beyond intimidating.

Compare that to what is likely to await the winner of Group B: a face-off against Poland, who England twice defeated 2-1 in qualifying.

Starting Rooney on Saturday is obviously out of the question. There’s been too little time for Rooney to practice. Although Paraguay bested Argentina in a qualifying match, England should be able to defeat the South Americans using Owen and Crouch on the attack.

Some commentators are suggesting that Rooney debut in the knockout round, but this seems foolhardy to me. It’s by no means certain that England will obtain the desired result against Sweden on June 20, which leaves only the June 15 match against Trinidad and Tobago.

Depending on the in-game situation, and whether there’s moisture on the pitch, I would be tempted to make Rooney a late-game substitution against Trinidad. He can work out his form in a fairly low-risk environment, and Eriksson can judge whether he’s fit to face Sweden.

I wouldn’t start Rooney against the Swedes either, but again depending on circumstance hope to place him in the game in the second half. By the time the knock-out rounds arrive, the burly youngster should be rounding into form and ready to boot his way to the title.


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