Saturday 25 May 2019

Daniel McDonnell: Scale of Colombian test gives Sterling the ideal chance to show England his true worth


England's Raheem Sterling. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
England's Raheem Sterling. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The numbers were crunched and the stat was delivered to Gareth Southgate on the eve of England's winner-takes-all clash with Colombia.

July 3 is not just the date of the game that will decide if England go through to the quarter-finals and emerge as genuine contenders for a shot at this World Cup.

It is also 999 days since Raheem Sterling's last goal for England.

That's a slightly more dramatic way of presenting the Manchester City player's failure to score in 22 games for his country, stretching back to 2015. But that's how it was put to Southgate.

"I have great belief in Raheem," he replied. "His movement, his ability to run at teams from deep and interchange with other forward players.

"I've wondered why at times there has been more focus on him than others. He's tough and resilient."

England's coach Gareth Southgate. Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
England's coach Gareth Southgate. Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

His point about the focus on Sterling is valid. More than any other England player, the 23-year-old has become a magnet for grief.

A proper thesis would be required to identify the reasons why. Sterling has made the headlines for crimes such as buying a house for his mother and travelling on an economy-class flight.

In the build-up to the tournament, he was caned for getting a gun-shaped tattoo, which he later explained as a tribute to his father who was gunned down when Sterling was just two years of age.

Sterling's point was that he would never a lift a gun and would only ever shoot with his feet, but he was condemned by Piers Morgan who felt this symbol was glorifying violence - this from a man who, as a colleague brilliantly observed, supports a club called Arsenal.

Maybe Sterling's big error was pushing through a big-money Premier League move from Liverpool to Man City while icons such as Steven Gerrard and John Terry flirted with similar transfers in order to boost their wage and reputation as one-club loyalists.

By contrast, Harry Kane has been lionised for his clean living, the absence of tattoos and even a 'traditional hairstyle'.

But Kane has been delivering for England, whereas Sterling has failed to reach the heights of his performances at club level.

And while some of the barbs aimed in his direction have patently been ridiculous, it's a leap from that to say he does not deserve any criticism at all.

He can do much better and tonight's game at the Spartak Stadium is the ideal opportunity for Sterling to illustrate how he has improved and evolved as a player under Pep Guardiola.

The 23-year-old should take it as a compliment that he was rested for the dead-rubber game with Belgium that sent England to the favourable side of the draw, and neither Jamie Vardy nor Marcus Rashford did enough to suggest they should be picked ahead of him.

Sterling did not set the world alight in England's opening game with Tunisia, the only proper match they have played in the tournament.

He found himself getting in the way of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard as they surged forward in an exciting opening half-hour against an opponent that defended generously.

And when they sat deeper after the interval, Sterling was frustrated as he toiled in search of space and was incapable of breaking through a maze of bodies.

Jamie Carragher argued on these pages that Rashford should be picked ahead of Sterling if Southgate sticks with a 3-5-2 system. He reasoned that a more natural striker should be accompanying Kane.

That's sound logic, but the challenge presented by an energetic Colombian side will be completely different; England will not be in the ascendency for the duration of this encounter.

Indeed, an interesting element of this fixture will be how the South Americans manage to test England's suspect three-man defence.

If James Rodriguez is fit to play, then coach Jose Pekerman will have two playmakers - James and Juan Quintero - operating in an area that will ask questions of Jordan Henderson and England's back three.

Colombia destroyed Poland's back three with James, Quintero and Juan Cuadrado positioned behind Falcao in a 4-2-3-1.

There was a suspicion before the tournament that Southgate could tweak his formation against a better class of opponent and he might have to stick with Ruben Loftus-Cheek as midfield support for Henderson.

That would really place the onus on the quality of England's advanced four and Sterling's ability to get on the ball in deeper areas and drive forward facing the goal could really be an asset if they are looking to punish a Colombian side that shows plenty of attacking ambition.

Alli is fit again, but injury is a concern. Lingard has impressed, yet Sterling is a better all-round player.

Guardiola has been praised for improving his movement around the box and the timing of goalscoring runs, yet he has thrived for City when games have become stretched.

And if this Moscow showdown becomes a frenetic affair at break-neck pace, then he will be a valuable asset to his country even if the goal famine continues. The 1,000-day drought will be tolerable if England are not out.

Irish Independent

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