THESE STRIKERS ARE SPECIAL

Wayne Rooney of England(left), France's Thierry Henry is a flashy mover who needs just a small opening to strike. -- Pics. AP & BEN RADFORD/ GETTY IMAGES-Wayne Rooney of England(left), France's Thierry Henry is a flashy mover who needs just a small opening to strike. -- Pics. AP & BEN RADFORD/ GETTY IMAGES

Thierry Henry is a seasoned hand, while Wayne Rooney has just exploded on the big stage. But make no mistake, the duo can be more than a handful for any defence, writes S. R. SURYANARAYAN.

THEY belong to a special breed. They are strikers of rare excellence. Performers, who virtually decide the fortunes of a match. One is a proven master and rated among the most feared hit men in contemporary football, while the other is an emerging star, already being talked of in glowing terms. Meet then the two influential players in the league phase of Euro 2004 — Thierry Henry and Wayne Rooney.

Every championship brings with it its quota of highs and lows, ups and downs, fascinating moments and abiding action that would remain as freeze frames for posterity. Even as the Zidanes, the Beckhams, the Nistelrooys, the Figos, the Larssons vie for focus with their patented acts and breathtaking sequences what churns up a competition is the kind of variety that players like Henry and Rooney can lend with their colossal talent. After all, football's most defining moments come from the art of goal scoring, those caressing free kicks, the dynamite-packed shots to bulge the nets and the sneaky taps and nudges that may appear child's play, but which in effect are a grand culmination of a well-planned strategy.

Henry and Rooney by their deeds have lent that spice to an already competitive Championship where predicting a result has been one big exercise in futility. Henry, of course, is not a representative of the new crop. He shot to fame six years ago in World Cup 1998. A silent assassin for his quiet clinical efficiency backed by a minimum of fuss in putting away winners, Henry has just tasted roaring success in the English Premier league, guiding Arsenal to title-triumph.

Rooney, on the other hand, is the new kid on the block, so to say. Just 18 years old, this young man from England is already a sensation. There is a freshness in his approach, laced with the vigour of a young bull. He can burst his way into the business area like a tornado. He can also excel in giving finishing touches with a subtlety beyond his age. When he pounds his way down the touch line, Rooney can inject real fear in the rival defence and his finishing can be just as spectacular as his four goals in three outings in Euro 2004 have proved.

In a country where football is a passion, where the media go on an overdrive on the deeds of star performers, Rooney has become a wonderboy in the game, a rage in England, having caught the imagination of the young and old alike. `Beckham-mania' has become `Roomania' in the football-crazy country.

The English papers, so used to spending so many reels and reams on the stalwart David Beckham have suddenly found an alternative. And is Beckham welcoming it! Greatness can sometimes be an unwanted crown, as Beckham would testify after the struggles he and his family have been through, seeking a normal life. Maybe Beckham, after his forgettable showing in Portugal, can sit back for now and watch the new sensation rise and give English football a new direction. Rooney indeed symbolises the aspirations of the youth just as Beckham for long was the flag-bearer of English football. The two-goal strikes, one each against Switzerland and Croatia, have instantly put Rooney on a different pedestal, attracting raving reviews. Perhaps the most striking words have come from his coach Sven Goran Eriksson, who compared him to the great Pele. The legendary Brazilian has himself said that the young man would go far.

Woe betide any defence that gives the duo room to manoeuvre. Henry is a flashy mover who needs just a hint of a chance to do instant damage. The Swiss will be the latest to vouch for that after his double strike killed whatever remained of their fight to remain afloat in Portugal.

Henry has this onus to maintain his reputation, but for Rooney this is just the beginning. Those who know him in Everton are not unduly surprised at the precocious talent's great doings. Everton club members vouch that ever since he sent a 25-yard shot with the accuracy of a sharpshooter to shock Arsenal, on an unbeaten run last year, he had arrived as a player on the big stage. He was barely 17 then. From `Who?' to `Who else!', Rooney has come a long way already, evoking a frenzied response to everything he does on a football field.

* * * England, France knocked out

THE first two quarter-finals of Euro 2004 produced sensational results with Portugal knocking out England 6-5 on penalties (regulation time 2-2) and Greece easing out France 1-0.

Details Next Week.