JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Will the real Wayne Rooney please stand up, because the one seen in an England jersey of late seems to be an impostor.
England needs Rooney to start scoring if it is going to get much further at the World Cup. Fabio Capello's team can't become world champions relying solely on Jermain Defoe, the height of Peter Crouch and the hit-and-miss Emile Heskey for goals.
One reason why the United States, Algeria and Slovenia proved to be far more bothersome obstacles than necessary for England in the group stage was Rooney's goal drought. That needs to change against the tougher opponents that lie ahead.
England's 1-0 defeat Wednesday of Slovenia, a victory more nervous and uncomfortable than it should have been, marked the eighth successive game in which Rooney has not scored for the national team — which is bizarre when one considers how regularly he shook the nets last season for his club, Manchester United.
Rooney isn't the only misfiring star at the World Cup. World player of the year and Argentina striker Lionel Messi also has yet to score in South Africa, but has created opportunities for teammates and has performed better.
Plus, it hasn't really mattered that he hasn't scored because other Argentine players have. Argentina notched up seven goals in its three victories that put it top of Group B. England's paucity of scoring, in contrast, condemned it to a second-place finish behind the United States in Group C, which came out on top because it scored four goals to England's two.
What, if anything, is eating Rooney isn't clear. The 24-year-old striker insists that he will score eventually and that he isn't overly concerned. But England should be.
His club manager, Alex Ferguson, has suggested that nerves could be part of problem. He spoke to Rooney by telephone last week.
"Sometimes the expectation can be a debilitating process," Ferguson told Sirius XM Radio. "I was saying relax, enjoy it. I could just sense there was a tension there in the (England) camp."
Seven minutes into the second half against Slovenia, when England was searching for a second goal to calm its nerves, Rooney fluffed a strike, missing the ball, after an interchange of passes with Steven Gerrard. It was an uncharacteristic howler from someone usually so ruthless in front of goal. Five minutes later, Rooney controlled a pass with his left foot and fired with his right but the Slovene goalkeeper got just enough of a fingernail to the ball to direct it against his post. Again, had Rooney been more decisive, the shot might have gone in.
Luck also seems to be against him, as is so often the case when a striker is going through a dry patch. In the 63rd minute Wednesday, Rooney's head connected with a free kick from Gerrard, sending the ball goal-ward. But then it bounced off the back of Slovene Milivoje Novakovic.
Rooney's problems might also be physical. He suffered knee, ankle and groin problems over the last two months of his club season.
Capello said before the World Cup that Rooney was completely recovered. Then on Wednesday, the Italian coach took him off after 72 minutes with a problem to the same right ankle that Rooney twisted in March in a Champions League defeat at Bayern Munich. The initial word from the England camp was that the problem will not stop Rooney from playing the next match and is not a recurrence of the old injury. But it remains a concern.
"Rooney was not OK for his ankle, I substituted. Rooney is a really important," Capello said. "As manager, I have to find some solution."
The consolation for England is that Rooney's huge desire to be involved never seems to wane. He looks desperate to score. He also labors long and hard to create chances for teammates. He showed sharp thinking in quickly taking a corner while the Slovene goalkeeper was out of his goal at the start of the second half. In chasing almost half the length of the pitch in the 52nd minute after one of David James' goalkicks, Rooney also showed what a bulldog he is.
Given his talents, it is inevitable that Rooney will score again. But what matters to England is that that happens now, at the World Cup, and not when it is too late.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.