DNIPROPETROVSK, October 9 – Wayne Rooney will start his bid to succeed Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player on the planet when England face Ukraine in a World Cup qualifier on Saturday.
Rooney spent the last three years playing second fiddle to Ronaldo at Manchester United as the 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year became the driving force behind his side’s success.
But, following Ronaldo’s move to Real Madrid, Rooney is now the main man for United as well as England.
England coach Fabio Capello had already decided to build his team around Rooney and now United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has restored him to his favoured central striking position.
Rooney would never publicly complain about being shunted to the flanks to allow Portugal winger Ronaldo a free role – after all he regards his former team-mate as the world’s best player – yet there is no doubt he is happier and more productive in the thick of the action.
England have certainly benefitted and Rooney knows he has a golden opportunity to establish himself as the world’s best in South Africa next year.
"You want to be the best," he said. "Of course it motivates you, but it’s not something I would go on about or keep talking about. Players are different, but of course that’s what you want to be.
"Ronaldo is definitely the best player at the moment. It’s clear for everyone. He scores goals. I’ve watched his first few games for Madrid and he seems to have improved again. He’s passing the ball a lot more as well!
"When he was at United, people said ‘he doesn’t run back, he doesn’t do this,’ but look at what he did going forward.
"But we as a team had to realise that if he was as good as that going forward, we had to make up for it by going back. That’s what happened and in the last three years we were very successful doing it."
Rooney has already scored eight times for club and country this season and the 23-year-old’s form and fitness will be key to England’s hopes of winning the World Cup.
Capello’s team have already qualified with two matches still to play after eight successive wins and can finish the campaign with 10 victories from 10 matches if they defeat Ukraine and then Belarus at Wembley on Wednesday.
Rooney has more motivation than most to make a major impact in South Africa after his miserable experiences at his last two international tournaments.
In 2004, Rooney looked set to be the sensation of the European Championships after superb displays against Switerland and Croatia. But he was forced off with an injury early in the quarter-final against Portugal and England crashed out on penalties.
Two years later, Rooney only just made England’s World Cup squad after a broken foot, but he was never fully fit in Germany.
He was sent off in the quarter-finals against Portugal for a stamp on Ronaldo and once again England lost on penalties.
Comparisons have been made between Rooney and Diego Maradona, who was sent off for Argentina in the 1982 World Cup and then inspired his country’s victorious campaign in the 1986 tournament.
"It was a straight red card. I’ve got no argument about that but I just try to forget about it now and move on and I’ve got a chance to put it right in the next tournament," Rooney said.
"I didn’t really get any stick, Ronaldo took a lot of it and I’m pleased with that. I could have taken more stick.
"Everyone has said how well we’ve played in the qualifying games and it’s a good chance for us to take that into the tournament and hopefully go further than we have in recent tournaments."
With Ukraine battling Croatia for a play-off place, Capello is likely to start with a strong team in Dnipropetrovsk out of respect for his two group rivals.
His main decision will be whether to bring David James back in for Robert Green as the Portsmouth goalkeeper returns to the fold after missing five matches through injury.