Wayne Rooney Aims Digs at Cristiano Ronaldo and Italy Ahead of World Cup Opener

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistJune 12, 2014

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 11:  Wayne Rooney talks to the media during a press conference after the England training session at the Urca Military Base on June 11, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Wayne Rooney certainly sparked discussion at the start of the FIFA 2014 World Cup. The England striker has taken aim at ex-Manchester United teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as England's first Group D opponents, Italy.

Rooney had a few surprising words for Ronaldo, a player he sees as being the opposite of himself, per Daily Mail reporter Neil Ashton:

I’m not a player who needs a legacy – like Cristiano, he has to have that. I’m more about winning as a team. He wants to have his moments. I’ve won player of the year, it’s nowhere near as good as winning a trophy with United.

The England man was attempting to express his own desire to put his team before himself, but his words acted as a thinly veiled attack on Ronaldo, who played alongside Rooney at United from 2004 to 2009. The back page of The Daily Star interpreted Rooney's words only one way:

Rooney and Ronaldo were often uneasy, yet highly effective allies during their time together at Old Trafford.

It was usually Rooney who played the role of foil for Ronaldo's goalscoring exploits at United. The striker modified his game to be a focal point of link play designed to set Ronaldo's pace and strength free.

But Ronaldo wasn't the only target for Rooney's pre-World Cup verbal salvo.

The 28-year-old also fired an ominous warning at Italy ahead of Saturday's match with the Three Lions, taking a swipe at the Italians' supposed weakness coping with a high-intensity, fast-paced game. Ashton provides the quotes:

The Italian players should be looking at us and how they can control our team. We’re not really too focused on Pirlo. [...]

If I’m being honest, when you play a high tempo they have struggled. The Italian league is nowhere near the tempo of the Premier League. Even when we played AC Milan, with Nesta and Maldini as centre halves, they really struggled when we played a high tempo. If we can do that we can give them problems.

Such bravado on the eve of the tournament may be considered cavalier by some. But Rooney's confidence should actually be welcomed by those in the England camp.

Rooney feels he and England have the pace to cause Italian defenders problems.
Rooney feels he and England have the pace to cause Italian defenders problems.Hamish Blair/Getty Images

Despite a recent dip in standing at both club and international level, Rooney remains his nation's most talented player. At his best he's an outrageously gifted attacker, capable of playing the role of creator, as well as acting as a prolific source of goals.

Rooney's fighting words are perhaps not surprising, given the recent criticism of his place in the England team. Former Red Devils teammate Paul Scholes has not been shy about suggesting Rooney's place internationally should be in jeopardy, per BBC Sport:

There's a chance he's worn out.

Wayne's peak may have been a lot younger than what we'd expect of footballers traditionally. With Wayne, it could have been when he scored 27 league goals in 2011-12 when he was 26.

I'm not saying Wayne needs to be dropped, but if his form doesn't get up to scratch in the warm-ups, or in the first game of the World Cup, it'll be interesting to see if the England management team has the balls to make that decision.

Rooney's chances of regaining his own high standards won't be helped by being moved out of position for this World Cup. In England's most recent warm-up games, manager Roy Hodgson has deployed Rooney out wide on the left.

Former teammates Phil Neville and Paul Scholes have offered contrasting views of Rooney's current form and importance.
Former teammates Phil Neville and Paul Scholes have offered contrasting views of Rooney's current form and importance.Ian Walton/Getty Images

It's a role he has been uncomfortably thrust into previously at club level. He often played there during the 2008-09 season, when then-manager Sir Alex Ferguson tried the likes of Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and even Ronaldo through the middle.

But it's not a position that suits this roving striker best. Rooney needs to act as the hub of England's forward play. That means putting him in the areas where he can receive the ball in space and look to exploit defensive gaps.

Rooney won't want new United boss Louis van Gaal to follow Hodgson's lead once the English Premier League season begins. Van Gaal has played a 4-3-3 many times at different clubs, and is likely to prefer fellow Dutchman Robin van Persie as his primary striker at United.

Rooney will be acutely aware that he needs to produce several strong showings in Brazil to remind everyone that he remains a feared and ultra-talented natural striker.

He must start by following through on his promise to cause the Italy defence a few headaches.