Rooney return will leave Walcott as Euro 2016 nearly man
With so many new rivals on the scene, will the Arsenal player be the one to suffer if England's captain returns?
England will be without an injured Wayne Rooney when they take on Germany at the weekend and it could be a taste of things to come for Roy Hodgson's team, with the Manchester United facing a struggle to reclaim his international place when he returns from injury.
The current England captain has laboured at times this season and does not appear to be the player he once was, while a host of rivals have been staking their claims for a berth in the team.
The rise of Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane and the unexpected blossoming of Jamie Vardy at Leicester City have added to Hodgson's options, while established players Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott will not expect to be overlooked.
So where does this leave Rooney?
"There is no question – if he is fully fit – that Wayne Rooney should be in the 23-man squad that Roy Hodgson names for Euro 2016. He should also be captain of that squad," says Jason Burt of the Daily Telegraph. But he "has a fight on his hands for his place in the team".
Hodgson's pledge to pick five forwards should secure Rooney's spot, agrees Daniel Taylor in The Guardian. There are six candidates for five places but "Hodgson has made it absolutely clear he will not be deterred from selecting Rooney".
Walcott at risk
Given his erratic form, Rooney is "fortunate" to have Hodgson's backing, says Taylor. He suggests that the player to miss out on selection will be Arsenal nearly man Walcott, the only one of the six leading candidates who is not a starter for his club at the moment.
Walcott's best hope of a call-up rests on concerns over the ability of Welbeck and Sturridge to survive the rigours of an international tournament unscathed. If Hodgson believes they are, "it makes it difficult to see where Walcott fits in when he has not started a league fixture for Arsenal since the 3-2 defeat at Manchester United at the end of February".
What about outsiders?
The glut of strikers means there is little chance Hodgson will pick a bolter as he did in 2014, selecting Rickie Lambert for the World Cup.
However, the Premier League hype machine was never going to allow Rooney's club team-mate Marcus Rashford to slip through the net. JJ Bull of the Telegraph has compared him to Michael Owen, another 18-year-old who broke into the England team at a major tournament, and Rashford's odds of making the squad have been as low as 5-2.
And who remembers Andy Carroll? The West Ham man is fit and his team are riding high in the league. "There are obviously others ahead of Carroll, but in terms of an impact to change a game, Carroll jumps ahead of Walcott in that queue, doesn't he?" asks Adrian Durham of the Daily Mail.
If there are injuries, both those players could demand a place in the squad, if not the team.
Who will play this week?
To observers overseas, it is a no-brainer. "In any rational world, England would start Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy," writes Ryan Rosenblatt of Fox Soccer in the US. "It's obvious. It's clear. It's a given, except in a world where Wayne Rooney exists, is English and the Three Lions happen to be the most bizarre national team on Earth, capable of inventing drama if for no other reason than to stay on brand."
But it is not that simple. Rosenblatt's apparent belief that England must play two central strikers gets shorts shrift on this side of the Atlantic. "The modern game does not lend itself well to the traditional two forwards," says Desmond Kane of Eurosport. "4-4-2 is not the favoured option to help teams dominate midfield."
Vardy and Kane could start against Germany with Welbeck, Walcott or Sturridge in a front three, although Hodgson may be more cautious away from home. A front three with Kane at the helm will surely be deployed against the Netherlands on Tuesday, however.
So what will happen in June?
It is here that the presence of Rooney becomes divisive.
The Times and Mail asked their football writers to pick an England team for the first game of the tournament. All 16 selections feature Kane, but a surprising 11 include Rooney and nine feature Vardy. Only five writers picked all three of them.
Meanwhile, Raheem Sterling (picked in seven teams) was more popular among the pundits that Sturridge, Walcott and Welbeck combined.
And it seems it is Sterling's versatility and Rooney's ability to play deep that makes the difference as Hodgson tries to find his best formation. In a nutshell, it appears the return of Rooney will leave Vardy and Sterling battling it out for the final berth.
"England need to find a way of getting Ross Barkley, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling into their formation at the same time as keeping Wayne Rooney, their most experienced and most proven forward, in the team alongside Harry Kane," writes Tony Barrett of the Times.