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Wayne Rooney, left, will be a key figure for England at the World Cup this summer. ((Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press))

An entire nation gasped, then held its collective breath.

Such was the reaction when Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney hurt his ankle and limped off the field during Tuesday's Champions League encounter with Bayern Munich.

United lost the game 2-1, but fans of England's national team couldn't care less about that result. They were more concerned over the health of Rooney, who left the stadium on crutches and wearing a protective boot on his right ankle, and whether he will be able to play at the World Cup this summer.

Headline writers at the top English dailies were kept busy.

"Pray," read the back page of Wednesday's edition of the Sun. "England's worst nightmare," declared the Times. "Not since Cinderella has so much rested on one foot," stated the Daily Mail

As it turned out, the United star was ruled out of action for only two to four weeks. That's bad news for the Reds, who are chasing a fourth Champions League crown and trying to win its fourth consecutive English Premier League title.

But it's very good news for the English national team, because it gives Rooney plenty of time to recuperate before England kicks off its World Cup campaign against the United States on June 12.

Why all this fuss and concern over Rooney?

Maybe it's because he has 34 goals in all competitions this season for Manchester United.

Lethal forward

Another reason is that the 24-year-old is generally regarded as one of the best and most lethal forwards in the world today, striking fear into the hearts of opposing defenders with his speed, drive, strength and deft dribbling ability.

Rooney's importance to the English national team can't be overstated.

"England without Wayne Rooney would be like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger. Actually, you could probably replace Jagger but you can't replace Rooney," Henry Winter, chief soccer correspondent for the Daily Telegraph newspaper in England, recently told CBCSports.ca.

Rooney is a major reason why England is being touted as one of the World Cup favourites, and it's no exaggeration to claim that the country's hopes rest squarely on his shoulders.

"If England are to have any chance of reaching the latter stages of the World Cup, let alone win the tournament, they need Rooney to be dominant," offered CBC Sports soccer analyst Jason de Vos.

"He is capable of scoring goals as well as creating them, but it is his determination to win that could be most essential for England."

England does have other forwards it can call upon, but none with the pedigree of Rooney, who has bagged 25 goals in 58 appearances for his country.

"The worry for England … is that there really isn't anyone else who is capable of picking up the slack if Rooney is having an off day," de Vos stated.

"Jermain Defoe is a decent striker, but decent doesn't win you the World Cup. Peter Crouch is a secondary striker at best, Emile Heskey has a poor scoring record for England and, despite having a solid club season for Sunderland, there are question marks over whether Darren Bent will make Fabio Capello's squad."

Rooney suffered the injury Tuesday while fighting for the ball with Bayern's Mario Gomez. That the United forward felt compelled to "get stuck in" and do the dirty work that is usually reserved for defensive midfielders shouldn't come as a surprise.

The one criticism of Rooney has been that he can be too competitive and he doesn't pace himself while playing for United, failing to realize that he has to hold a little back in a World Cup year to be fully fit to play for his country.

"Because Rooney wants to play every game [for Manchester United] and he wants to compete for every ball in every game, he may well get injured," said Winter.

"We've seen it with him before — he was injured before the last World Cup and wasn't fully fit in Germany. He got frustrated in that game against Portugal, got sent off and England's hopes instantly dissipated."

As for Capello, he left no doubts as to the importance of the star striker in the World Cup.

"There are three players who can make a difference at present," Capello told Spain's Gol Television. "One is (Cristiano) Ronaldo, the others (Lionel) Messi and Rooney."