ENGLAND captain Wayne Rooney reacted with dignified defiance when he found himself under the microscope on the eve of his side’s Euro 2016 opener against Russia.
Russia’s coach, Leonid Slutsky, said this week that Rooney is “not the player he was” and a Russian journalist put that claim to the player at yesterday’s pre-match press conference at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, suggesting this was a widely held opinion within his country.
The Manchester United forward, who has been known to react indiscreetly on the pitch in years gone by, was the model of restraint but made his point clearly: he may be a different kind of performer but he does not see himself as a less effective one.
“Everyone who watches football is entitled to opinions,” he offered. “I know the qualities I have and to be honest I don’t need to sit here and defend myself. I’ve played this game for a lot of years. I’m aware that my game has changed slightly over the years and in my opinion it has changed for the better.
“The opinions which matter to me are those of my coaches and my team-mates. I never said I’ve changed my position; I’ve changed my game slightly.
“I’ve seen players and played with players who have changed what they did and become better players. That’s natural. I’ve played in midfield for the last few months at United, and it’s a natural way in football. “It happens.
“I feel with my football intelligence, I can play there and further my career there as well.”
Managing Rooney’s role in the side, given his seniority, influence and peerless CV, has been one of the more taxing conundrums for Roy Hodgson in recent weeks.
A front three of Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy fell flat in the final warm-up match against Portugal and is unlikely to be reprised against Russia.
That brings wingers Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling back into contention, but places are at a premium for midfield slots with Rooney potentially edging out one of Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson or James Milner in the centre.
“There are so many good players who could quite easily command a place,” said Hodgson. “It’s not been easy to select a team. But I’m pleased with the headaches I have. We hope we are ready. I haven’t named the team as yet, I have a team meeting in the morning when I’ll name the team.”
England’s defence has been a cause for concern but centre back Chris Smalling and left back Ryan Bertrand have overcome knocks, giving Hodgson the luxury of having a fully-fit squad to pick from.
England, chasing a first international trophy in 50 years, have not won their opening game at a European Championship in eight attempts .
They are also coming off the back of a dreadful World Cup performance in Brazil when they exited the tournament at the group stage without winning a match.
“You can’t wipe the slate clean,” Hodgson said. “We’ll live with the fact it’s been 50 years since we won a tournament, and 20 since we reached a semi-final.”
“We want to kick-start our tournament,” he added. “Preparations have been perfect… we’re ready and excited.”
Russia will take the field weakened by injuries to two key midfielders. Moscow Dynamo Veteran Igor Denisov was ruled out of Euro 2016 altogether after picking up a thigh injury in his team’s final warm-up match, a 1-1 draw with Serbia on Sunday. And CSKA’s Alan Dzagoev broke a bone in his foot last month and was also ruled out of the whole tournament.
“These difficulties will only bring our team together and we’ll be playing with more enthusiasm,” Russia coach Slutsky said.