LONDON – Saturday’s F.A. Cup final, in which the lowest-scoring Manchester United team in more than a quarter of a century is expected to beat Crystal Palace as comfortably as it can with such an impotent attack, will have two particular interests for England manager Roy Hodgson.
As he begins his preparations for Euro 2016, the performances of Wayne Rooney and Marcus Rashford will be under Hodgson’s microscope.
There is no doubt Rooney, if fit, will captain England in France though not as a striker, the position where he has won virtually all his 109 caps. Rooney now refers to himself as a midfielder, with United at least, and it is in this role Hodgson will use him behind a lone striker, almost certainly Harry Kane.
In his perfect world Rooney would still lead the line, but the emergence of Kane, Jamie Vardy and a fit-again Daniel Sturridge has pushed England’s record goalscorer down the striking pecking order.
It is a change Rooney has accepted with the professionalism we have come to expect. The gum-chewing teenager who struggled to express himself is now a football-eloquent spokesman for club and country. The red mist may still be just below the surface, but his combative style has helped him become the player he is.
In recent months there has been growing evidence that Rooney has the desire, capacity, belief, intelligence and ability to be effective from a deeper position while still retaining an eye for goal. At 30, the blistering pace that made him such a dynamic No. 9 is no longer there. Louis van Gaal’s pragmatic style does not help a center-forward without the speed to beat opposing defenses, which the younger Rashford and Anthony Martial possess.
In a No. 10 role, Rooney has the intelligence to both create space and chances for others. His legs may not be as quick as they were, but his brain remains razor-sharp.
Playing a blinder against Palace’s Yohan Cabaye, Mile Jedinak and James McArthur would hardly be conclusive proof that Rooney is a born-again Xavi or Andrea Pirlo, but a solid, inspirational display at Wembley in domestic football’s highest-profile game will go a long way to silencing Rooney’s critics who feel time should be called on his international career.
Such thoughts are ludicrous. England’s last squad of 2015 had 62 international goals between them — Rooney accounted for 51 of them. His penalty against Switzerland last September was his 50th goal for England, surpassing Bobby Charlton’s 45-year-old record to become his country’s highest goalscorer.
He has been England’s most consistent scorer over the past 12 years and Hodgson places a high value on loyalty. Rooney hopes to emulate Paul Scholes, one of the best attacking midfielders of his generation, and said: “I have played with and watched Paul play that role for years. I always knew that one day that is where I would play, so I have tried to learn and watch what he did.
“I think sometimes you have to make choices in your career and at the minute it is probably better for me to play deeper. Obviously that’s a bit different now with England because I could still be the striker, but certainly after that, I am sure for next season, that is probably where I see myself playing.”
While Rooney may be going to his last major finals, though it would be premature to write him off for the 2018 World Cup, Rashford has his sights set on an unlikely debut at European football’s top table. Few had heard of him at Christmas. In February an injury to Martial during the warm-up saw Rashford make his first-team debut against Midtjylland in the Europa League, scoring twice in a 5-1 win.
His stunning form — eight goals in 17 matches — almost forced Hodgson to include the 18-year-old in the preliminary squad of 26 for Euro 2016, which will be cut to 23 on May 31. Rashford deserves his elevation, but even a Wembley hat trick and another three against Australia on Friday at Sunderland would probably not be enough for the teenager to earn a ticket to France.
Hodgson will take four strikers — Kane, Vardy, Sturridge and Rooney, who is included in the quartet of front men — and only an injury to one of them will see Rashford in the Euro squad.
More immediately, Rooney and Rashford have the chance to salvage something from an underachieving season for United and it is difficult to make a case for anything other than a Palace defeat. The Eagles finished 2015 in sixth place, but they have collected only 13 points since Christmas.
“‘We’ll play a team who are, potentially, a great team. I’m pleased for Louis van Gaal that he’s got there. They’re the biggest club in the world,” said manager Alan Pardew who played in Palace’s only previous F.A. Cup final games, both against United in 1990 when United won after a replay.
“It’s a tough task for us, and the game plan will be different, but we’ll buy into it. We have got players who can hurt any team.”
United finished the season strongly, losing one of the last 13 games. Van Gaal could lead United to its first major trophy since 2013 — the last Premier League title under Sir Alex Ferguson — but it will not alter the view of the majority of its fans who want the Dutchman to leave.
Fifth place, an F.A. Cup win and the Europa League next season is more of a step back than a step forward.
“The expectation is very high,” said van Gaal. “The fans are expecting a lot, but I think these expectations are much too high.”
This view puts him in a minority of one.
England lineup: A weakened England will play an under-strength Turkey Sunday at the Etihad in the first of the Euro 2016 preparation games. Hodgson will be without Chris Smalling,Rooney and Rashford because of the F.A. Cup and will not select Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Adam Lallana or Sturridge in the wake of Wednesday’s Europa League final defeat against Sevilla.
Turkey coach Fatih Terim can’t count on the likes of Arda Turan, Nuri Sahin and Burak Yilmaz for the friendly. Turan will play for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla Sunday, Sahin will try to help Borussia Dortmund beat Bayern Munich in the German Cup final on Saturday while Yilmaz is needed in China.
The main focus will be how Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere plays after missing virtually all the season through injury.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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