Gerrard: 'Rooney to rule SWC'
'Unbelievable' Wayne Rooney. (AP)
Rustenburg - Steven Gerrard believes Wayne Rooney can be the player who defines Africa's first World Cup.
All the reports emanating from England's base camp at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus indicate that the Manchester United striker is chomping at the bit in the final countdown to his side's opener against the United States here on Saturday.
"Unbelievable" was the adjective Gerrard opted for. Fabio Capello, the England coach, has been equally free with the superlatives in assessing Rooney's form and fitness ahead of a tournament which offers the 24-year-old the perfect opportunity to banish painful memories from the last World Cup.
Having arrived in Germany struggling for match fitness after breaking a metatarsal bone, Rooney was a shadow of the forward who had, as an 18-year-old, terrorised defences at Euro 2004.
He departed Germany goalless and in disgrace, his involvement ended by a red card issued for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho in the quarter-final against Portugal, which England ultimately lost on penalties.
The hangover from that defeat still lingers and England's players, while bullish about their hopes for the tournament, now accept that their strength in depth is not quite a match for the world's best.
They know that their chances are entwined with Rooney's capacity to perform at his best and claim the goals they will need to carry them deep into the knockout stages.
Gerrard believes Rooney is already worthy of comparison with the world's current best players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The challenge for him now is for him to prove it by making the kind of impact on a World Cup finals that Diego Maradona - who was sent-off in the 1982 edition against Brazil - had when Argentina triumphed in Mexico in 1986.
"We have been working very hard and each day we are getting sharper and better and dealing with this altitude more and more, and I can see that in Rooney myself," Gerrard reported. "The last couple of days he has been unbelievable in training."
The England captain added: "The stage is set for Wayne. He is a fantastic age, he is in great shape and he is coming off the back of an unbelievable season, probably his best. He is in the category of those players like Ronaldo and Messi.
"I'm just delighted he is English and he is going to be leading us out there. Hopefully he can be our main goalscorer and score the goals that spur us on to victory."
Both born and brought up in deprived districts of a deprived city, Liverpool, Rooney and Gerrard are close off the pitch as well as enjoying a good understanding on it.
In that context, it is significant that the Liverpool midfielder recognises that Rooney's chances of greatness depend on him keeping a lid on the emotions which fuel his drive for success.
"People talk about the yellow card he got the other day (for abusing a referee in a warm-up match) but that's Wayne Rooney," Gerrard said. "He is always on the edge, he has got that fire in his belly. I think if Wayne channels his frustrations in the right way he can be one of the players of this tournament."
Gerrard will also be seeking to channel his personal frustrations in a positive sense. In an 80-cap international career, he acknowledges that he has failed to consistently perform for his country at the kind of level he reaches week in, week out for Liverpool.
Having missed the 2002 finals through injury, Gerrard had a good Euro 2004 but failed to enhance his reputation in Germany four years ago. Now 30, he knows time is running out for him to make the kind of impact on a major tournament that will earn him a place among the world's greats.
"All the players in the squad recognise this is the stage and everyone wants to prove that they can go to a World Cup and shine and be a top player," he said.
"I have shown signs that I can do it at this level by scoring goals and putting in decent performances but for me the challenge is: Can I lead a group of players all the way to the final and can I perform consistently in every game at a major tournament? That is what I will be aiming to do.
"I think I'm in a good moment. Physically I'm in great shape. Mentally I'm fine. I'm chomping at the bit and I can't wait to get going."