England roared to its fourth straight victory in World Cup qualifying yesterday with a 3-1 victory over an up-and-coming Belarus side in Minsk. Wayne Rooney had two goals (a brace), as he did over the weekend in a 5-1 win over Kazakhstan in London. This followed his man-of-the-match performance against Croatia in Zagreb. After a long international scoring drought, Rooney now has five goals in his last three matches.
What accounts for the turnaround? First, Rooney is healthy. Despite his boxer’s build, that hasn’t consistently been the case, the result of his extremely physical play. Second, virtually all forwards are streaky when it comes to scoring. Because Rooney is at least as much about setting other players up as about scoring himself, he is prone to producing few goals during his “down” periods.
But the biggest factor is Rooney’s unlikely partnership with Wayne Heskey. Almost ten years ago, I saw Heskey, playing for Leicester City, run rampant against Sol Campbell, then the best defender in England. Performances like that one earned him a transfer to Liverpool and a spot in the national team. But Heskey never did the business as a goal-scoring center-forward for club or country. Eventually, he became came a journeyman, plying his craft for clubs like Birmingham City and now Wigan.
What Heskey’s many critics overlooked was his ability to set up for other players. Center-forwards with his power, ability in the air and quickness (for his size) are expected to score consistently, but an intelligent footballer can just as easily use those traits for the benefits of his partner on the front line. Heskey has quietly done this for years.
Last year, with Rooney hurt,a desperate England called on Heskey to partner Michael Owen, with whom he had played at Liverpool. The result was two big wins against Russia and Israel. Subsequently, Heskey and Owen both suffered injuries, Rooney returned, and Heskey faded from view at the national level.
But the new English manager, Fabio Capello, sensed that Heskey could do for Rooney what he did for Owen. And so he has. For once, Rooney is no longer the prime creator (and battering ram) on the front line; now he’s the go-to guy for goals, though he stil managed to create two against Croatia. So far, knock on wood, it seems to be adding up to a trip to South Africa for the next World Cup and the possibility of making an impression there.
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