Rooney talking a good game

England's national soccer player Wayne Rooney listens to reporters' questions during a news...

England's national soccer player Wayne Rooney listens to reporters' questions during a news conference in Krakow June 17, 2012. (REUTERS)

JAMES LAWTON, SPECIAL TO QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 4:44 PM ET

DONETSK, UKRAINE - Before he announced that England has the players and the spirit and the method to overturn 46 years of more or less unbroken futility and become European champions down the road in Kiev, it was fair to ask Wayne Rooney if he really was going to deliver something special.

It is, after all, eight years since he has done anything on an international field in that category.

Now another question clamours for answer. Would he recognize soccer reality if it landed on his head and was written on a large stone?

The truth is that England has quite enough of a challenge in this tough, hot steel and coal town Tuesday, putting down the last of the local passion for iconic coach Oleg Blokhin and the revered but aging Andriy Shevchenko to steer Ukraine into the knockout stage of this increasingly brilliant tournament.

This is the yearning you see almost every time you walk down the street or switch on the television to be greeted by the sight of young Tymur Shamanov filling the screen with joy when Shevchenko nodded in one of his two goals against Sweden.

It is an image that takes us to the heart of the wonder of sport and who would be callous enough to tell Tymur it was only Sweden? Rooney, of course, shouldn't really need telling.

England, especially with an apparently highly motivated Rooney back, certainly has enough to subdue those remnants of Ukrainian optimism that survived the mauling by France -- but does this make the English serious contenders?

Only if you want to join Rooney thigh-deep in the mythology that England has not been going backward pretty much since Sir Alf Ramsey made one of his few bad calls in the World Cup quarterfinal against Germany in Leon in 1970.

This is not to damn the recent work of new coach Roy Hodgson.

He was scarcely given a chalice, poisoned or otherwise, when he was appointed a few weeks before this tournament and his management of the crisis has been exceptional in its ability to pick out points of strength.

His reorganization of the team against Sweden last Friday, after the ebbing of the momentum which came with his shrewd decision to throw Andy Carroll against a vulnerable Swedish back line, was a fine piece of tactical calculation. He sent in Theo Walcott on a hunch worthy of Poirot. Not only did it rescue triumph from the jaws of what threatened to be a grotesque disaster, it had Rooney off his seat with the dreamy look of a vindicated prophet.

But if there was a light in his eyes was it just possibly moonshine?

Certainly if the Republic of Ireland sadly has been elected the tournament's worst team, the Swedes are not so far behind.

Take away the swaggering Zlatan Ibrahimovic and you would have to conclude they are scarcely a team. So how was it they came so close to wrecking England in Kiev? Because -- we should really face it one more time -- England is not a whole lot better.

Yes, the English beat Sweden but with extreme difficulty and when they trailed early in the second half Hodgson wore the expression not of a saviour but a victim. His ability to think on his feet foraged a victory against Sweden.

There are other bonuses. Carroll has proved his value as a shock troop. Walcott has found some of that tender self-belief that was put at such risk when Sven Goran Eriksson took him along just for the ride in the 2006 World Cup and Fabio Capello brutally dumped him four years later. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looks an authentic contender and Jack Wilshere is developing an authentic rhythm. Danny Welbeck has come through a rite of passage with impressive aplomb. Joleon Lescott has been notably obdurate.

All these positives would have been gratefully accepted back when Hodgson seemed to be spending most of his time dodging questions about Rio Ferdinand.

Maybe Rooney, 26, has reached a point in his career when he believes he can reach out and find some of those qualities which made him such an outstanding prospect -- even a revelation -- when he arrived in Lisbon not as another bright new kid on the block but a natural-born leader, a genuine shaper of events.

Perhaps he has extended this belief to the idea he can drive England past the Ukrainians tonight, then carry them into the uplands of soccer that were already compelling before Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to eclipse all else Sunday with his subjugation of the Dutch.

That would be something, Rooney stepping out of the shadow Ronaldo cast over him at Old Trafford, and going hand-to-hand for the second biggest prize in international soccer. Maradona did it for Argentina, of course, in Mexico in 1986 in the one that still matters most of all, but then Maradona, for all his imperfections, was a rock-hard genius.

Rooney is no doubt in need of a little more definition, just like England, and who knows, a little of it may come starting Tuesday. It is not the wildest dream in this tournament -- but then it is also true Tymur Shamanov is only six.


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