Wayne Rooney weighed down by expectations of a nation
United star will be feeling the heat as the tournament draws near, although England boss Roy Hodgson tries to play down the striker's role
Few England players will be feeling the heat as much as Wayne Rooney on the team's pre-World Cup stop in Miami.
The closer it gets to the World Cup, the greater the pressure on the striker to produce the kind of performances for England that earned him the most lucrative contract in Manchester United history last season.
Rooney, who collects more than US$20 million a year at United, has scored 38 goals in 89 England appearances since bursting onto the scene as a teenager. But he has now gone four matches on international duty without scoring.
No wonder the country is so concerned about its star striker's struggles with just two weeks before England open their World Cup campaign against Italy in Brazil. England coach Roy Hodgson, though, is trying to ensure Rooney is not burdened by the expectations in a country which has not won the World Cup since 1966 - or even reached the semi-finals in 24 years.
"I think it's a bit sad that the country is so Wayne Rooney-obsessed," Hodgson said ahead of the team's arrival on Sunday in Miami for two World Cup warm-up matches. "I don't think Wayne sets himself up to be anything other than a very important member of the squad who tries his best at all times."
Is his best enough these days? The 28-year-old Rooney should be at his peak, but some pundits are questioning whether Hodgson should cast aside the country's most recognisable player.
Paul Scholes, Rooney's former teammate for England and United, issued a plea to Hodgson through a blog to consider putting the forward on the bench against Italy if his "form doesn't get up to scratch."
While Rooney is likely to start at one of the two games in Miami - against Honduras on Saturday rather than Ecuador on Wednesday - his starting spot on June 14 against Italy no longer seems so certain. Hodgson did not name Rooney as one of his guaranteed picks for the Manaus game when asked about his options this weekend.
"In the back positions we have a pretty clear idea of what we want," Hodgson said. "Once you get past Steven Gerrard in midfield, there are five positions to fill. I think there are plenty of options there and we could do well with a number of those options."
Rooney will be travelling to Brazil on Saturday night from Miami still searching for his first World Cup goal, having failed to find the net in Germany in 2006 and four years later in South Africa.
No other England striker has gone eight games at a World Cup without contributing a goal.
Rarely before, though, has Rooney's life away from the pitch seemed so tranquil. Whereas previously the Liverpool-born player was dogged by scandals in his private life that made front page news, Rooney now seems focused on bringing up his two children with wife Coleen.
"He's in a better frame of mind going into this tournament than he's had going into previous tournaments when he's had injuries," captain Steven Gerrard said.
A groin injury, however, kept Rooney out of United's last three matches of a trophyless season. The appearance in Friday's 3-0 victory over Peru was his first since scoring twice for United on April 26 against Norwich.
"I was happy with Wayne Rooney's performance, and I have no need to consider, at this moment in time, which strikers I will play against Italy in two weeks' time," Hodgson said after beating Peru 3-0 at Wembley Stadium.
"I'm very pleased with the options I've got in my strike force."