LONDON - Regarded as England's best player for a generation, it was not wildly optimistic to assume Wayne Rooney would emerge from his slump in form against Montenegro at Wembley on Tuesday.
Instead, the Manchester United striker's main impact during a mind-numbing 0-0 draw in Euro 2012 qualifying was on the ankles of Elsad Zverotic when England's supposed goal threat was chasing back deep into his own half.
It was an incident that typified a performance that once again turned the spotlight on coach Fabio Capello.
After encouraging Group E wins against Bulgaria and Switzerland the dark cloud of a wasted World Cup in South Africa was beginning to lift over the highly-paid Italian but the media wolves were snapping at his heels again in Wednesday's newspapers after a dismal performance.
Unable to score the early goal that helped instil some energy and belief against Bulgaria and Switzerland, England's players quickly ran out of ideas against a limited but hard-working and disciplined Montenegro side.
Rooney, so often the spark, was subdued. Deprived of service, he went roaming, leaving target-man Peter Crouch isolated, trying to feed off the occasional crosses that were provided from the flanks.
In Capello's defence, he had a long injury list with strikers Jermain Defoe, Darren Bent and wingers Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon all missing but then Montengero were also without their best player Mirko Vucinic.
It was a night for the 24-year-old Rooney to take matters into his own hands and lead from the front. Instead, he huffed and puffed and never looked like opening up the massed defence in front of him.
Rooney has managed just one goal for Manchester United this season, a penalty against West Ham United, and looks strangely inhibited and hesitant, rather than the spontaneous tyro that has scored 26 goals for his country.
Capello's verdict on England's display was simplistic.
"It is not easy to play against teams like this who defend very well and are difficult to beat," he said afterwards.
Particularly when the talisman Steven Gerrard spent almost the entire game nowhere near the Montengero box and Capello's Plan B was to send on Kevin Davies for his international debut.
The Bolton Wanderers player gave 100 percent, as he always does, but rather than the battering ram approach, England were crying out for some craft.
Liverpool's Joe Cole was in the squad, a player tailor-made for unpicking defences, yet was overlooked. Arsenal youngsters Jack Wilshere, another player with a sharp football brain, was also ignored as England laboured.
Cole, in particular, must be starting to doubt his international future under Capello after also being marginalised during the World Cup finals.
At least his name-sake Ashley had a better night.
The Chelsea left back was again one of the few players that looked capable of playing in any national team in the world as he equalled Kenny Sansom's appearance record for a full-back.
Cole now has 86 caps in his collection and while Capello has many things to ponder over the coming months, at least he knows he has some genuine class on the left side of defence.comments