Wayne Rooney and his England teammates knew they were in for a fight to advance from a stacked Group D at the World Cup. They certainly didn't expect to get knocked out after two matches. Now the star forward must turn that frustration into a positive heading toward the club campaign.
It's been a forgettable year on the pitch for the 28-year-old Manchester United stalwart.
The Red Devils finished seventh in the Premier League, 22 points off the championship pace set by rival Manchester City. The lackluster result means they didn't qualify for any European competition next season. The only title they did win was the Community Shield, a match Rooney didn't play.
Hopes were also high for England despite the tough group. The attacking force, led by Rooney, looked strong and the Three Lions possessed a solid combination of experience and young players on the rise in the midfield.
Two games and just two goals later, England heads into the group finale against Costa Rica, the surprise team of the tournament so far, without anything to gain but perhaps some pride.
After the Ticos upset Italy on Friday to ensure the Three Lions' exit, Rooney took to his Facebook page to express his disappointment:
Absolutely devastated to be out of the World Cup. Going into each game we had great belief in ourselves but unfortunately it hasn't worked out. Sorry to all the fans that travelled and at home that we haven't done better...gutted!
He took a significant portion of the blame. Between his numerous missed chances in the loss to Uruguay and his status as the side's spotlight player, he was an easy target. Yet, he was one of the few players actually creating opportunities.
Rooney assisted on the Three Lions' only goal against Italy. Then he finally broke his World Cup scoring drought by finishing against Uruguay, before Luis Suarez stole three points back for the Celeste.
ESPN Stats and Info noted it took him 29 shots before one finally found the net at the marquee international tournament:
One person that came to Rooney's defense was United strike-partner Robin van Persie. David Kent of the Daily Mail provided comments from the Dutch international, who said those blaming Rooney are off base with their criticism:
I watched most of the game against Italy and the whole game against Uruguay, and I think it is a shame. England played quite well and were so unlucky. Wayne worked his socks off, played very well and could have scored four goals so I don’t think he is to blame.
While those remarks from Van Persie are spot on, they probably won't change many minds around England. Not with the letdown of the early exit still fresh.
Ultimately, there's nothing Rooney can do to change their minds. The best thing he can do is refocus all of his energy to the next big task on his plate. That would be getting United back into Premier League title contention, or at least into Champions League position.
Once again, despite the plentiful talent around him, the spotlight will follow Rooney.
He's received plenty of critiques over the past few seasons about his fading goal totals in Premier League play. He scored 27 goals three seasons ago and 29 over the last two. Often overlooked is the fact his assist totals have jumped, from four, to back-to-back seasons of 10, as he was asked to play more of a distributive role.
Should Rooney be blamed for England's early exit?
If Rooney is able to turn all of those negative reactions into motivation, he could be in for a monster season with United. The lesser workload associated with a season that lacks European football should also do wonders in terms of keeping him fit and healthy.
He was a couple of feet away from a hat trick and being the hero against Uruguay. Instead, he only scored once and England is heading home—following the game against Costa Rica—with plenty of blame on his shoulders. It shows the small margin between the two extremes.
Rooney can sulk and allow the team's struggles to bother him all summer. That would have a negative impact on his play when club action resumes. Or he can use it to propel himself to a new level to help United return to their usual standards.
Expect the latter.