Wayne Rooney's misery continues..

An anomaly Wayne Rooney was eager to correct was that he had picked up more red cards at World Cups than he had scored goals. Sendings-off led successful strikes 1-0 as the Premier League's best player arrived in South Africa hoping to justify the extravagant praised piled on him by some of the world's best judges.

There were other awkward stains on Rooney's résumé: for a start, no goal in an international tournament since the two he scored against Croatia in a 4-2 group phase win at Euro 2004, which prompted Sven-Goran Eriksson to lose control of his tongue. "I don't remember anyone making such an impact on a tournament since Pelé in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden," the normally exaggeration-phobic England coach said.

As Steve McClaren's side failed to qualify for Euro 2008, the Euro 2004 echo could be considered misleading but there was no mistaking Rooney's need to pick up the thread of tournament goalscoring, especially as he had not sniffed out the target for England since the 5-1 win over Croatia last September.

So the World Cup family watched at the imposing Green Point Stadium in Cape Town to see whether coaxing a good tournament performance from England is beyond even Fabio Capello and whether Rooney has yet recovered his zip and zest, the man-crushing and net-ripping power that earned him the title of last of the street footballers.

The news is discouraging on both fronts. Against the world's 30th-best nation England, ranked 22 places higher, were an apology for legitimate World Cup contenders and Rooney was so subdued that Capello might have felt half an urge to bring him off when he instead withdrew Emile Heskey in favour of Jermain Defoe in the 74th minute.

Whatever Rooney achieves in South Africa will require an inner victory over the frailties holding him back because it all looks woefully like labour, as if he were a pianist whose timing has temporarily deserted him.

Almost his first act was to misdirect a simple pass to Steven Gerrard to an opponent. In the first half his shooting lacked crispness and his dashes and darts lacked the velocity that made him such a quick-moving terror for Manchester United.

Perhaps the most ominous sequence in an abject first period for England came when Rooney was one on one with Algeria's Foued Kadir on 38 minutes.

An on-song Rooney would have made Kadir wish he had stayed in bed by asserting his menace and muscularity, yet here it looked an even contest and the bouncing ball ran on harmlessly.

An impediment is that England's fate has become inseparably bound up with Rooney's form, in the minds of pundits, public and players. Gerrard acknowledged in the week that England "need" Rooney to regain his old lethal touch for the team to progress. The captain was only affirming an obvious truth but one wonders what gets into the minds of the other strikers if they think Rooney is the only forward expected to break the door down. Equally, dark thoughts must haunt the rest of the team when they see him slip, mis-control, prod a pass astray or fire a tame shot at a defender's legs.

In these circumstances Rooney has yet to find a constructive way to escape frustration. A fault of his is that he turns that angst in on himself. But there should be no doubting his willingness to go on fighting his way back to sharpness. Coupled with Heskey for the second game running, Rooney began to retreat deeper to connect with Gerrard and rediscover his old sureness of touch. Maybe then, after a passage of steady link-play, he would be ready to relaunch assaults on goal or work the angles from the No10 position rather than the centre-forward's area.

A row would not ensue at an elite coaching summit if one argued that Rooney is the game's third most formidable player after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. That claim was best made, though, in mid-season, when he was a force of nature in a Manchester United shirt. It is his misfortune that the greatest test of that assertion should come just as his injured body has started to disobey the orders coming from his brain.

Against the USA in Rustenburg he intimated that a sparkling performance might be coming but in Cape Town it again seemed a long way off. For England this World Cup has turned into a bit of a vigil, just as it was, in a more extreme form, in Germany four years ago, when Rooney slept in an oxygen tent to overcome his metatarsal injury and joined the party late. A stamp on Ricardo Carvalho's groin against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen earned him a red card, a fine of 5,000 Swiss francs and a flight home.

As England's followers mocked a weak Frank Lampard shot, Capello's problems were multiplying way beyond Rooney's tameness. Qualification from the group stage was at stake. For that to be true after games against USA and Algeria is shocking, even if one accepts England's historical limitations. Rooney, like Capello, looks lost.

Exclusively by Paul Hayward

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