As England prepare to take on Italy in their first World Cup group game tonight, here are three talking points to consider.
The Rooney conundrum: England's new Scholes?
It's not uncommon for international teams to house one stand out star: think Ibrahimovic for Sweden, Ronaldo for Portugal, Messi for Argentina, or Neymar for Brazil. Wayne Rooney has long occupied this space for England. But no other big name has failed to perform so consistently for so long.
Don't be fooled by the fact he's almost certain to surpass Bobby Charlton's 49 goal record for England over the next few years. Since bursting onto the scene at Euro 2004, only one of Rooney's 39 goals have come outside of qualification matches (this tap in against Ukraine). To only find the net once in tournament football and never in a World Cup is inexcusable for a player of his supposed stature.
In a season where Manchester United collapsed and Daniel Sturridge helped fire Liverpool to within inches of the title, Rooney's efforts have faced scrutiny like never before. Former team mate Paul Scholes drew first blood, suggesting that at 28, Rooney's peak could be behind him. England manager Roy Hodgson tacitly acknowledged as much, demoting our one time "white Pele" to the left wing for the friendly against Ecuador. A sign that work rate and bulldog passion, rather than attacking efficacy, now define his worth.
This may seem strange considering he has been United's talisman in a horror campaign, but the swashbuckling swagger that once defined his game appears long gone. These days, Sterling, Barkley and Sturridge are seen to hold the spark.
Scholes' damning verdict ironically mirrors his own England career. Retrospectively acknowledged as the finest midfielder of his "golden" generation, the temptation to cram Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard into central midfield forced Scholes wide. A midfield dynamo for Manchester United, he never truly replicated this club form internationally, enduring a four year goal drought. Eventually, tired of being played out of position, he quit international football aged 29.
There's a warning for Rooney and Hodgson here. Rooney may possess some of Scholes' on pitch attributes, but they are poles apart in personality. Rooney bleeds England and burns with frustration. The Liverpudlian, far from silently battling disquiet and throwing in the towel, is desperate to make an impact and realises this is his last chance. With this in mind, Rooney spent his brief off season break with a personal trainer in Portugal; a marked contrast to lounging in Las Vegas as before Euro 2012.
Rooney's mental fragility has always been his biggest weakness. But he seems to proactively want this, for himself, if no one else, and when fit, hungry and raring there are few better. He deserves one last chance; not out wide, or in midfield, but behind the striker.
And if he doesn't perform? For once we have potential options, such as Ross Barkley, to replace him. Scholes would have given anything for the faith shown in Rooney up till now, let's not make the same mistake twice and constrain our finest players.
Welbeck or Sterling? A symbol of Hodgson's crossroads
Ah! Danny Welbeck. A player far from the finished article, but harbouring potential that his club and country simply can't ignore. At this moment in time Hodgson (rightly) views Sturridge and, potentially, Rooney as a better source of goals, but tends to play Welbeck out on the left - appreciating his pace and industry.
However Welbeck lacks the positional sense to hug the touchline. Favouring himself as a goalscorer first and foremost, his instincts lead him to the centre; disrupting the shape of the team. Unfortunately, frequently lapses in composure stifle him in front of goal.
Raheem Sterling's emergence for Liverpool gives England a much more exciting, direct attacking option. But there is a general feeling that Hodgson may start with the tried and tested Welbeck on the left; his inherent conservatism shining through. This would be a shame, as left-back Leighton Baines, unlike right-back Glen Johnson, is not defensively suspect, able to cope without the extra defensive cover. The Italians are far from the quickest, and will suffer in the heat. Sterling, an unknown quantity in Europe, could blow them apart with his electric pace and trickery.
Hodgson surprised many with his youthful squad selection, whose strengths lie in attack. But picking players for a squad and playing them are two very different things. Selecting Welbeck over Sterling suggests he is, ultimately, not brave enough to truly let England loose. And if he feels unable to set our new talent free in the opening game of a World Cup, against an ageing Italian defence, the question must be asked, when else will England be allowed to forge a new attacking identity, able to compete when it matters?
For all the new attacking talent, be it Adam Lallana, Sterling, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain or Barkley, the squad relies excessively on captain Steven Gerrard to anchor midfield. Now 34, the heat and his advancing years mean he will require support. Fellow Liverpool team mate Jordan Henderson, another to have enjoyed a breakthrough season, is most likely to fill in and provide defensive cover, but for all his energy, he can be careless on the ball – a sin at any level, but especially against De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo.
Henderson's inclusion means Wilshere, a far more attacking option, is likely to miss out. In the event he should be called upon, the Arsenal play maker looks far fromfully fit and can be lightweight in the tackle. The only other option is utility man James Milner, who is more suited out wide. Either way, neither have the ability to dictate and break up play from deep like Michael Carrick, or a rejuvenated Gareth Barry at Everton. Of course, Frank Lampard is an option, but at 35, can only cover so much ground.
The defensive weaknesses are not limited to midfield. Should Phil Jagielka or Gary Cahill suffer injuries, the substitute pairing of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have endured torrid seasons, and have looked devoid of confidence and game time. Most worrying is the form of Glen Johnson, whose lapses in concentration have been persistent during all the England warm up games. An angled ball from Pirlo could leave him very much exposed.
Ultimately Roy, give youth a chance, it can't get much worse than South Africa. Can it?