England captain Wayne Rooney has brushed off suggestions that he is the weak link in the squad and warned Russia not to write him off.
A Russian journalist put it to Rooney at Friday’s pre-match press conference at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome that he is “not the same player he was”, suggesting this was a widely held opinion within his country – up to and including the national side.
The Manchester United forward, who has been known to react indiscreetly on the pitch in years gone by, was the model of restraint but made his point clearly: he may be a different kind of performer but he does not see himself as a less effective one.
“Everyone who watches football is entitled to opinions,” he offered.
“I know the qualities I have and to be honest I don’t need to sit here and defend myself.
“I’ve played this game for a lot of years. I’m aware that my game has changed slightly over the years and in my opinion it has changed for the better.
“The opinions which matter to me are those of my coaches and my team-mates.
“I never said I’ve changed my position; I’ve changed my game slightly.
“I’ve seen players and played with players who have changed what they did and become better players. That’s natural. I’ve played in midfield for the last few months at United, and it’s a natural way in football. It happens.
“I feel with my football intelligence, I can play there and further my career there as well.”
Managing Rooney’s role in the side, given his seniority, influence and peerless CV, has been one of the more taxing conundrums for Roy Hodgson in recent weeks.
A front three of Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy fell flat in the final warm-up match against Portugal and is unlikely to be reprised against Russia.
That brings wingers Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling back into contention, but places are at a premium on midfield slots with Rooney potentially edging out one of Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson or James Milner in the centre.
“There are so many good players who could quite easily command a place in the team,” noted Hodgson.
“It’s not been easy to select a team. But I’m pleased with the headaches I have.
“We hope we are ready. I haven’t named the team as yet, I have a team meeting in the morning when I’ll name the team.”