England vs. Italy: Wayne Rooney’s Chance to Transcend Stardom, Embrace Legend

Wayne Rooney’s match-winner against Ukraine seemed to temper a meaningful critical review of his return. Rusty with his first touch and flashing a footballing mind working quicker than his out-of-practice reflexes, the tournament debit showed he wasn’t far from being his usual self, even if he clearly was not ready to write his legend. The beneficiary of a goalkeeping mistake from Ukraine’s Andriy Pyatov, Rooney still managed a goal in his cobweb-shaking Euro 2012 debut, providing assurances that even on an off day he is a once and future king.

It’s a quality that should come in handy on Sunday, when Rooney will be the only difference between two sides seemingly intent on curing world insomnia. Of course, reprobate fans like myself will reflexively watch Sunday’s quarterfinal, thereby meeting most DSM-IV criteria for addiction and dependence. All indications are Sunday’s will be a dull match featuring two sides begging the other to advance with the ball. Only after Italy shows a willingness to do so (and shows no any idea of how to break down England) will it be apparent this match should have started with penalty kicks, with UEFA wisely and pre-emptively saving us the two-hour dross.

The approaches are too homologous to provide conflict. They’re more likely to produce a symbiotic passivity. England won’t risk opening up, and while Italy manager Cesare Prandelli might ideally like to, his talent instinctively regresses into stoic, reactionary football. Old dogs, new tricks, and Italy’s reformation hasn’t found new homes for all of Marcello Lippi’s left over hounds.

Both teams will use great goalkeepers and conservatively deployed midfielders to protect their central defenses – tandems short on agility and athleticism. The sides rely on the aging legs and outdated reputations of their midfield generals (Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo) to provide some imagination while spraying the ball around. When either team establishes a presence in the final third, we’ll see an abundance of passes around the defense that serve to obscure a lack of know how.

All of that can be avoided with a good performance from Wayne Rooney, the one player who has the ability to sever this match from its predictable course. If Rooney plays like he did against Ukraine, England’s unlikely to distinguish themselves from Italy; however, if Rooney takes even the smallest of steps forward – if he knocks off some the rust from his touch and is able to match his reflexes to the speed of his ideas – Rooney gives England a major edge. Not only is he England’s most creative player – somebody who can provide useful ideas in the final third ideas – but his speed is likely to trouble center halves Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. Coupled with Danny Welbeck and the occasional presence of Ashley Young, England has the personnel to take advantage of some of those hounds.

Of course, England had a similar advantage against Ukraine and failed to exploit it. A lack of ambition through midfield meant the edge was never fully exploited. Had Rooney been his normal self, he could have dropped further back from his forward position, helped England’s midfield connect with its forwards, and brought the team out of their shell. If some of those symptoms appear against Italy, England should enjoy more possession, more dangerous chances on goal, and a tilting of the scales.

But attack is only one phase where England need Rooney. In defense, Italy’s most important player will reside in the zone Rooney will be expected to defend, and while his group stage performance has largely been overstated following his great opening match against Spain, England must have a plan for midfielder Andrea Pirlo. Functioning as the Azzurri’s regista, the connection Pirlo has with forward Antonio Cassano acts as Italy’s nervous system. Break that, and Italy’s unlikely to accomplish anything but the most basic, autonomic tasks.

With Pirlo camped at the base of midfield, it should fall on Rooney to be the player who snaps the cord. Involved in three of Italy’s four Euro goals (one goal, two assists), Pirlo is Prandelli’s focal point. Faster than Pirlo with a comparable ability to read the game, Rooney can cut of Italy’s key point of distribution, forcing them into a Plan B they may not have.

All of which begs the question of Wayne Rooney’s fitness. Though he stayed on until the 86th minute against Ukraine, Rooney seemed to lose energy near the hour mark, something that may have been a one-match aberration. It’s hard to believe Roy Hodgson wouldn’t have had a planned substitution ready had Rooney lacked fitness. Perhaps the nervous energy of his return wore him down, with his second match of the tournament more likely to play out as expected. Regardless, if England are to break what seems like a tactically, stylistic, and ideological deadlock, they will probably need Rooney to do it.

It’s the type of opportunity that great players rarely have. How often do you see teams of such similar quality and approach meet with one player providing the only apparent difference? Even at international level, Messi and Ronaldo almost always play for the more talented side. For both club and country, Xavi and Iniesta orchestrate a style that no opponent can match. Even in England, Rooney’s Manchester United have developed such a distinct approach that Rooney is never the only difference between the sides.

England and Italy aren’t twins, but they’re close enough to make Rooney’s presence a literal game-changer. Line up the teams side by side, take the likely XIs player for player, and you see one side has a true difference-maker while the other does not. The closest Italy has is Mario Balotelli, but only 21 and still struggling with the expectations of extreme talent and character, Balotelli can’t be replied on. While Cassano plays a very similar style to Rooney, he’s no longer able to take over matches the way Rooney might.

Eight years ago, Rooney was that Balotelli-esque figure, making his major tournament debut in Portugal with four group stage goals – back-to-back doubles after England’s heart-breaking opening loss to France. By the end of 2004, Rooney had nine international goals in 20 appearances, a goal ratio comparable to those of Bobby Charlton, Alan Shearer, and Michael Owen. Since then, Rooney’s tacked on another 20 goals, though his rate has slowed considerably. Having scored only four times since 2009, Rooney sits with 29 goals in 75 appearances while critics ask whether he’ll ever be as good for England as he is for Manchester United.

Only 26 years old, there’s still time for Rooney to define his England legacy. Within the next four years, he can put his name alongside Charlton’s and Gary Lineker’s at the top of England’s goal scoring lists. Still, as it concerns his place in England’s lore, nights like Sunday’s can be career-defining moments.

It’s about living up to your billing. It’s about being the difference-maker everybody wants. It’s about giving a performance that demands comparisons to the Linekers and Shearers who help define the conversation around English football. It’s about showing you really are one of the best players in the world, a player worthy of building a national team around, and not just the best, more glorified English player in the Premier League.

Performances against nations like Italy matter. Tournaments like this, stakes like these: They’re rare opportunities for a player to transcend stardom and embrace legend. At the right time of his career and against the right opponent, Wayne Rooney’s time is now.

Richard Farley is a freelance writer and former host of the EPL Talk Podcast. His work is prominently featured in NBC Sports’ soccer coverage. You can follow him on Twitter at @richardfarley.

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