Slovenia manager Srecko Katanec has admitted that he would not be stunned to see England captain Wayne Rooney benched by Gareth Southgate ahead of their 2018 World Cup qualifier in Ljubljana tomorrow night (11 October). Despite being his country's all-time leading goalscorer and most capped outfield player, the Manchester United stalwart's name was greeted by boos when the teamsheet was read out prior to Saturday's 2-0 defeat of minnows Malta at Wembley.
Yet another disappointing display in a deep-lying midfield role did little to satisfy the overwhelming majority who feel that Rooney should no longer be considered as a regular starter at international level, with the 30-year-old once again criticised for his ponderous sideways passing that served only to repeatedly slow the pace of attack.
Interim boss Southgate has subsequently insisted that he is prepared to make tough choices for the good of the team and widespread reports have now suggested that Rooney, who has already confirmed his intention to retire from England duty after the next World Cup in Russia, will be relegated to a substitute's role in Slovenia as Eric Dier prepares to make his return.
And while Katanec appreciates the difficulty involved in such a high-profile decision, he believes the skipper's advancing years and lack of form means it would not be a shock to see him suffer that demotion.
"I would not be surprised if he was dropped," he was quoted as saying by the Press Assocation at a pre-match media conference on Monday. "Wayne Rooney is a leader of this team, he has the experience a captain needs and it is quite hard to substitute him or leave him out. But it is also true that he is not the youngest any more and maybe his form has taken a little dip."
Slovenia currently lie fourth in Group F, behind Scotland on goal difference. They followed an opening 2-2 draw away to Lithuania with a narrow 1-0 win over Slovakia at the weekend. Although sympathetic to Southgate's plight, Katanec admits that it would be a boost to his increasingly confident side if Rooney did not start at the 16,693-capacity Stozice Stadium.
"Because of his experience and quality I would rather he would not start than he does start," he added.
Dier played no part in the comfortable, if typically lacklustre, win over Malta, having only just returned from a hamstring problem. Even so, the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder is expected to start on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Sunderland and England U21 goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has joined up with the senior national squad after being drafted in as a replacement for Tom Heaton, who has pulled out with a minor injury.
Arsenal left-back Kieran Gibbs has also been called up to cover Ryan Bertrand, who lasted just 19 minutes against Malta before a hamstring injury led to him being replaced by Danny Rose. Raheem Sterling, Glen Johnson and Phil Jagielka all withdrew from the squad before the weekend, with Burnley's Michael Keane and Crystal Palace winger Andros Townsend both then added.