Sterling earns plaudits as Southgate faces tough calls on weary troops
When he was substituted with 12 minutes to go and with England down to 10 men and desperately chasing the victory, Harry Kane handed the captain’s armband to Eric Dier. As Gareth Southgate later observed to his assistant Steve Holland, it should have gone to Raheem Sterling. “I hadn’t seen it, I was busy getting instructions to try and reshape the team,” Southgate explained.
But in the absence of the injured Jordan Henderson and with Kane off the pitch, and maybe Harry Maguire also in the reckoning if he had been there, Sterling was not just England’s most senior player but the one who should have assumed the captaincy, as he has done in the past.
Not that it mattered. Sterling led in any case and although a scrappy, uninspiring 1-0 victory away at the 39th-best team in the world, by Fifa rankings, and one already shorn of their best players, was hardly inspiring, it was still a win and three points in what will be a competitive Nations League group, along with Denmark, who England face in Copenhagen tomorrow, and Belgium.
Much was made of exorcising demons from England’s traumatic Euro 2016 exit to Iceland, but this was not just a very different occasion but a very different team with a very different mindset. Again, England did not play well, after a strong start, but this time they did not panic, with Sterling epitomising what Southgate called a “relentless” desire to keep going which helped gain the late penalty.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him, really,” Southgate said of SterEngland ling. “It would have been very easy to have another few days on the beach, not report in, get himself right for his club at the beginning of the season.
“His mentality the whole week has been exceptional. I thought he carried the fight when we went down to 10 men and he took the responsibility of the penalty, and I thought it was outstanding character throughout.”
Sterling’s season finished on only Aug 16, with Manchester City’s Champions League exit against Lyon, and here he was – along with club team-mate Kyle Walker, who endured a different sort of evening – playing competitively again.
Sterling’s penalty – his first for England – meant that he has been directly involved in 17 goals in his past 12 internationals, scoring 11 and with six assists, a remarkable return for the 25-year-old. He earned the penalty, also, albeit fortuitously with Sverrir Ingason harshly deemed guilty of handball as he blocked Sterling’s shot, which also earned the defender a second yellow card.
Maybe England regarded that as justice, given Kane’s
Going off: Kyle Walker reacts to his red card first-half effort – from Sterling’s cross – was wrongly ruled out for offside (strangely there is no Var in the Nations League). However, Southgate’s side had a further slice of fortune when former Aston Villa midfielder Birkir Bjarnason skied a penalty awarded when Joe Gomez committed a rash foul. That came seconds after England had taken the lead.
Before the late drama, Walker had been sent off. A foolish lunge at midfielder Arnor Traustason led to a second caution and the doleful way he spoke after the game showed he feared he may again be ditched by Southgate, following his recall. The manager made it clear how unnecessary he felt the challenge had been.
Where does this result leave England? Well, three points up and a game down – and definitely not one to recall too fondly. It felt like a pre-season friendly which, essentially, it was. And in this Covid world, it is important to cut the players some slack. Some have barely trained. Kane, for example, has not had a single session at his club, Tottenham Hotspur.
For Southgate, the big question is which of his players can he start with, again, versus Denmark? Kane looked tired, but it is his nature that he will be determined to be selected even if Tottenham will be hoping he is not. Southgate said there would be changes – and it is likely that he will revert to a back three and a 3-4-3 formation – but most of those will be dictated by fitness.
“Energy will be key,” Southgate said. “The clubs have been really understanding. “Everybody knows this whole season is unique and they know whenever we can we try to manage their players as well as we possibly can.”