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Rooney's last chance to fulfil his potential as a England great

IT COMES as something of a shock to the senses to discover this could be Wayne Rooney's last appearance at a World Cup finals.

The England forward still seems like a player on the cusp of achieving something truly great, someone capable of ascending to the rarefied air enjoyed only by the elite if given enough time.

At 28 years old, however, he can no longer be viewed as a work in progress. This may be as good as it gets for the player considered by some to be the most talented Englishman of his generation.

Rooney may enjoy the same commercial profile as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Xavi et al but only rarely has he shown he deserves to be considered one of their peers. His development has been blighted by injury, loss of form, poor decision-making, and a raft of off-field distractions.

His best position is still unclear. He has gone from being a centre forward, to a deep-lying midfielder, to filling the No.10 berth behind the striker. In England's recent friendly against Ecuador he was shunted out to a wide left role. It is unthinkable that he will not start against Italy in Manaus this evening but it has become a case of manager Roy Hodgson trying to find the best way to accommodate Rooney rather than building a team around him.

Rooney was the youngest player to ever feature for his country when he made his debut aged 17, and he remains their youngest ever goalscorer. That promising start hinted at someone who would prove hugely influential for England but he has failed to deliver. This is his third appearance at a World Cup finals and he is yet to score a goal.

He was sent off against Portugal in the 2006 quarter-final - the winking Cristiano Ronaldo would receive more criticism than Rooney ever did - and then endured an unhappy time in South Africa. His frustration after the scoreless game against Algeria was laid bare when he bellowed into a television camera as he stomped off the pitch.

"Nice to hear your own fans boo you," he said, to his later regret. "It was stupid of me," he said earlier this week. "I understand that now, but it was a frustrating time."

Rooney could still prove influential in what looks a difficult group for England but there is no longer the same pressure on him to deliver. That may be a good thing.

Instead, England supporters will look to Daniel Sturridge to provide the main goal threat, Raheem Sterling or Adam Lallana to bring a creative touch, and Steven Gerrard to offer leadership. Rooney has always been capable of providing an idiosyncratic spark and, relieved of the expectation that he will be the prime creator or scorer of goals, that freedom may allow him to flourish.

Not the most natural of athletes, he will likely struggle tonight in the steamy humidity of the Amazon jungle against an Italian defence renowned for giving little away, but subsequent group games against Uruguay and Costa Rica should give him the opportunity to make his mark. If a campaign can turn on a moment of genius, then Rooney looks most likely to provide it.

He is a man with a point to prove. There has been a rush to write him off in recent times, his erstwhile Manchester United team-mate Paul Scholes surprisingly at the head of the queue. Scholes wondered whether Rooney may have peaked two years ago and questioned whether Hodgson would have the bottle to drop the forward.

The criticism stung. "He's probably the best player I've ever played with so I'm not going to knock him as a player but I don't agree with his point," replied Rooney. "I do find it strange."

He will be 32 years old by the time the World Cup carnival rolls into Russia in four years' time and there are no guarantees that he will still be involved in the England set-up by then. This then may be his last chance to truly make his mark on the world stage.

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