Ster­ling earns plau­dits as South­gate faces tough calls on weary troops

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Total Football - By Ja­son Burt CHIEF FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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.”

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