It is a reflection of the mismatch to be played out at a Wembley crammed to capacity on Friday that, on the eve of the game, Wayne Rooney was asked what it is like to confront opponents who are utterly and undeniably inferior. England's stand-in captain was preparing a diplomatic response when his manager, Roy Hodgson, interrupted. "Let's hope they are," he said, though the chuckle which followed was revealing.

It would take something freakish in the extreme for England not to prevail against San Marino on Friday. The visitors are ranked alongside Bhutan and the Turks and Caicos Islands as the worst international side on the planet, their record a dismal 108 defeats in 114 games, and for once the figures really do tell their own story. They have scored 19 and shipped 473 goals in that time and would presumably consider a thumping to the tune of defeat by six this evening something of a triumph.

The home players can point to domestic cup upsets, where lower league teams have held or even beaten elite opposition, as cause for caution, but this is a walkover in waiting. All of which leaves the management, confident as they are of success, in the rare position of being able to use a full, "competitive" fixture to gear up for the real contest to come.

England will be tested in Poland on Tuesday and Hodgson, while still seeking the cricket score the nation expects, will want evidence of positives in his team's play that can be transferred to Warsaw: understanding in his partnership at centre-half; pace and invention on the flanks; and, above all, the sight of Rooney revelling again on this stage.

There may be an irony that a player who has endured his share of disciplinary issues will wear the armband in the week the Football Association outlined a new off-field code of conduct, but it is on the pitch where England crave Rooney's influence. A forward with 76 caps, 29 international goals and countless match-winning performances for Manchester United feels like this team's natural talisman, particularly in the absence of more experienced campaigners in a side that is rapidly evolving.

Yet since Sven Goran-Eriksson permitted the relatively unknown youngster to express himself at Euro 2004, only Fabio Capello has benefited from Rooney at his best. Even then, the 11 goals mustered in 10 qualifying fixtures ahead of the 2010 World Cup went forgotten when form, fitness and composure deserted him at the tournament itself.

Since then, the 26-year-old has managed only four goals in 21 caps. Two more this evening, hardly an unlikely scenario, would establish him as his country's fifth highest scorer, and yet that feels incidental.

If Hodgson is to succeed in establishing this team as contenders, then his principal task is surely to eke consistency from one of the few world-class players at his disposal. A hat-trick against San Marino would not signify Rooney is back, but it would be an encouraging start. It would certainly send him to Poland with a spring in his step.

Hodgson, publicly at least, is happier talking up the collective as a means of coaxing form from his skipper. "All I can do is prepare the team in the best way and try and see that, when Wayne goes onto the field, he feels he has my confidence, he knows what I am looking for him to do, and he feels comfortable in the position he's playing," he said.

The notion that he could employ Rooney at the tip of midfield behind a pair of forwards, as Sir Alex Ferguson did so eye-catchingly with United at Newcastle on Sunday, has fallen by the wayside. "Wayne is a forward," said the England manager. "Sure, he's a forward who can drop deep, and you could use him as a midfield player, he's that talented. But he will be supporting the other forward I choose to play in this game.

"What you'll see in this match is a lot of attack versus defence. It's fairly obvious from previous San Marino games that they rely on the odd counterattack and get players back behind the ball as early as possible. We'll have bodies in front of us and plenty of possession, and it won't be easy to break them down. But I'm confident the players will find the spaces, make the chances, score the goals and we'll get our three points." San Marino's defensive record would suggest errors will be made. Rooney will have opportunities both to create and convert in a side dominating the ball.

There are choices to be made around him. Jermain Defoe, spritely for club and country to date this term, could start at the tip, but Hodgson is aware the Tottenham forward is one of three players who are a booking away from missing the game in Poland and may therefore opt for Andy Carroll.

There is still sense in picking Joleon Lescott, another of the carded men, to partner Phil Jagielka as the management look to life after John Terry, though James Milner is expected to sit out tonight. His industry will be an asset in Warsaw and, as a victim of what Hodgson deemed a "confetti" of yellow cards in the draw with Ukraine, his selection would be a risk.

In truth, England will surely prevail regardless of the nuances of the management's selection, even if this remains the warm-up to the main challenge ahead. "A good result is a win and a good performance," added Hodgson. "I want to see evidence that they're doing what I want them to do, whether it finishes 1-0 or 10-0." That evidence must include Rooney dictating this team's display.