Rooney still the biggest conundrum for new-look England

The Manchester United forward provided the assist for Daniel Sturridge's goal but missed a golden chance to equalize as calls for him to be benched grow stronger.
After 631 minutes of soccer, spread over eight years and three tournaments, Wayne Rooney finally did it. He finally contributed to a goal in a World Cup ... and yet the triumph was temporary, the relief brief. The problem was that he did not score one.

It is an exaggeration to say that he cost England a point. It is nevertheless very possible that his side would have avoided defeat had he found the bottom corner of the Italian net.

Rooney had the chance to salvage to draw, to ensure he will not draw a blank for a third successive World Cup. He dragged it wide. Those 39 international goals count for precious little if he does not deliver when it matters most and, as the forward's radar proved awry, Roy Hodgson scrubbed his face in frustration. His supposed superstar may have created a goal, with an enticing cross that Daniel Sturridge swept in, but he had already received two slights from the manager. Now many are calling for a third, most public demotion.

It only took 10 minutes to put Rooney's achievement of ending one of his droughts into context. Already displaced from his favored position behind the main striker by the precocious Raheem Sterling, he was then shunted from the left to the right flank because Danny Welbeck was trusted more to control a raiding right back, Matteo Darmian. He is sliding down the pecking order.

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Hodgson's halftime switch had unwitting echoes of Sir Alex Ferguson's decision, 15 months earlier, to prefer Welbeck against Real Madrid. The lesser player, the limited player, is the man managers believe can do the dirty work. Rooney has become the conundrum.

Hodgson, like his three predecessors, has invested his faith in Rooney. Yet, tellingly, he opted for potential over pedigree, Sterling rather than Rooney, in the pivotal central role. He was rewarded by the teenager, not by the senior figure. An assist and a couple of classy cross-field passes apart, it was a frustrating night, summed up when he halted Ross Barkley's solo run only to shoot over. It already seems a safe bet that, whenever England's campaign ends, the next generation will be deemed the winners. "Wazza" may never be Gazza, the star of an England World Cup.

He was not charged with emulating an icon. Instead, he was cast at the start as Graham Rix. In 1982, Ron Greenwood selected the Arsenal man at left midfield to track back against West German right back Manfred Kaltz. He was criticized for it, although Rix negated the fullback in a stalemate. Rooney failed to ensure a repeat.

His nemesis was Darmian, the lowest-profile member of Italy's starting XI. Rooney's wanderings meant that Leighton Baines was left exposed whenever the Torino man advanced. Despite his famous fondness for appearing in the left back position to make the occasional tackle, the Manchester United star cannot be relied upon to double up time and again.

In 2009, Terry Venables suggested that Rooney could be the best left winger in the world. That was his final season of selfless sacrifice to permit Cristiano Ronaldo to do whatever he wanted. Since then, the idea has been overlooked. The Rooney fixation has involved the idea that he must be a No. 10 for club and country.

He occupied three roles against Italy, none of them his favorite. He ended up as the main striker after Sturridge's substitution. Should the hobbling scorer prove injured, Rooney may have to lead the line against Uruguay. But the spots on the sides pit Rooney against the rising forces.   

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who may be fit by Friday, thrived on the right against Ecuador. Given Adam Lallana's ability to operate on either wing and Barkley's promising cameo, it puts Rooney's place in question. The view that many have is simple: If Rooney does not start in the center, he should not play at all.

Popular opinion is turning against Rooney — the knee-jerk reactions on social media were to call for his head — but it would be Hodgson's boldest decision yet to omit him (and, predictably, the England manager insisted that he played well).

The reality is that there is no simple solution. He was neither such a revelation to guarantee a starting spot on the flanks or such a disaster to justify demands that he be dropped.

So how do you solve a problem like Wayne? After a decade of trying, England is no nearer to knowing the answer.