Raheem Sterling has come so far from being the fall guy… five years ago he was foiled by Iceland on a desperate night at Euro 2016, now he is the main man during England’s march to the semi-finals
For a player who has already delivered so much these past few weeks, Raheem Sterling’s pre-match reflections on Saturday night were surprisingly subdued. ’One negative comment can be on your mind,’ he related. ‘A lot of people don’t understand what goes in behind closed doors. It’s not only about match-days.’
The tone was a reflection of the difficult relationship between him and England, these past nine years. The low point came during that desperate night on the French Riviera against Iceland five years ago when he was up against arguably the weakest right-back in the 2016 European Championships – 31-year-old Birkir Saevarsson, who played in Sweden for Hammarby. Sterling came out second best.
That night seems as much a distant memory now, just like careworn Sterling we saw that summer, yet he has still has not found quite the acclaim that others have received during England’s journey to the quarter finals. It was Kalvin Philllips, the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’, who took the acclaim after Croatia were beaten; Jack Grealish whose name was chanted in the second half against Germany and Harry Kane who has been the resurrection man and so nearly scored a hat-trick.
Raheem Sterling celebrates with Harry Kane after scoring the third goal against Ukraine
Sterling suffered on a desperate night against Iceland at the 2016 European Championship
Sterling has been the truly outstanding one, though. His three goals, supplemented by the quite beautiful assist for Kane last night adds up to the greatest contribution to a single England player to a tournament in modern times. He is certainly their player of this tournament.
It was something Steven Gerrard once said of Sterling that came to mind as he bounced off Mykola Shaparenko, landed off balance in the penalty area and yet still managed to find the pass that sent Harry Kane in to score the first.
‘He”s got the strength and power of a man,’ was Gerrard’s memory of the teenage Sterling he worked with at Liverpool. ‘He could always mix it with hard men.’ There would be titanic battles with the vast Slovakian centre half Martin Skrtel in training sessions at Melwood. ‘Sterling could carry Skrtel on his back,’ Gerrard said of those. ‘I”ve seen him do it in one-on-one situations…’
It was one thing to have had the clarity of mind to spot Kane after cannoning clear of Shaparenko and arriving in a pocket of space. It was something else to locate him with a diagonal ball navigated through four players. Kane will take the headlines today but the toe poke in off the goalkeeper’s chest was comparatively easy.
Sterling has cast aside the negativity which also accompanied him into this tournament
From there on, Sterling seemed to go looking for the physical challenges against defenders who looked like they were hewn from Ukrainian sheet metal. First, he switched flanks with Jadon Sancho and ran at the imposing figure of Mykola Matvienko. Then he flipped back to the left and drew a despairing lunge from Serhii Kryvtsov, another of the players from steel-making territory in Donetsk.
He was a magnet for the football, playing with his head up, rolling it under his studs, occasionally feinting to run before doing so. The utter mismatch down his flank revealed itself just beyond the half hour mark, as he eased around the back of Oleksandr Karavaev and delivered the cut back which forced a desperate clearance from Matvienko.
The first half statistics sheet told that Sterling had completed more dribbles (3), won more fouls (3) and had more touches in the opposition box (5) than any other player in the first half.
None of this was perhaps a surprise, given the way Sterling had jet propelled England through the group stage, though the air of excitement and anticipation beforehand was about Jadon Sancho starting. Sancho briefly glittered, though it as the man on the opposite flank who wanted the ball. Sterling was the one whose deft ball, despatched with the inside of his left heel found Shaw for that imperious Kane header to put England two up.
This was the player destroyed after that Iceland calamity by Joey Barton, who declared in a column for L’Equipe that the player was ‘weak and very limited technically” with a poor final ball. ‘Without his pace, would he be a professional?” Barton asked back then.
The England forward is creating the chances and finishing them at this year’s tournament
There was a telephone call during that 2016 tournament between Sterling and Pep Guardiola, newly arrived at City, who identified a psychological dimension to Sterling’s struggles. One insider put it more strongly. ‘Raz was fading away.’
Guardiola and assistant Mikel Arteta were integral to him becoming the finisher we are seeing now. They felt he was static when he received possession, with his gaze fixed on the ball rather than a half-touch instinctive control and the vision of what was around him.
But he has made the progression himself, continually casting aside the negativity which also accompanied him into this tournament – when few expected him to become a regular starter.
On Saturday night, the element of doubt had entirely vanished just beyond the hour mark, by which time Sterling was among those being removed to preserve energy for the more challenging Denmark encounter to come. His last act was a significant contribution to England’s fourth. His presence in the six yard box distracted Karavaev, who left Jordan Henderson free to score.
The biggest concern when Sterling trudged away from the 2016 Championships was the seeming lack of players available to create the moments of imagination, invention and surprise which he might seize upon. Five years on, he is creating the chances and finishing them.
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