Wayne Rooney must play for England tomorrow in Zagreb. It's just too important a match for Steve McClaren to stamp his authority, showing that the days of favouritism to top players who are struggling for form are over.

McClaren bravely grasped the nettle over David Beckham but it would be a huge gamble to drop his best player. At his best Rooney would relish such a match. The problem is restoring his confidence almost overnight.

But what ails Rooney can wait. It may just be immaturity, a prolonged sulk after being suspended for being sent off in a pre-season friendly. Someone - preferably his club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson - should tell him there have been several times when he's been lucky to stay on the pitch, that such things even themselves out.

England look lost without Rooney's inspiration. All week, before the Macedonia shambles, the players talked a good game, accentuating the positives, evangelically on-message.

Yet when it came to the basics they were useless. Pass the ball to a team-mate, find space, shoot with accuracy - is that so complicated?

It's such a familiar failing with England. Head coaches come and go but the players seem to live in dreamland. Peter Crouch, usually so sensible, shrugged his shoulders after the match and told the media, 'It was just one of those days'.

Correction. It was just one of those typical days from players who seem to lack the ability to examine their own contributions rigorously. Only Gary Neville appears capable of this steely awareness.

That's why Rooney's welfare is so crucial. At his best he plays with a puppyish joy and freedom. He is daft at times, needing a clip around the ear or a cold bucket of water in his face. But he can play with a beautiful economy and fluidity. His time will come again - can you say that for the rest of his England team-mates?