The Independent

Sterling’s enduring status can hit a new peak in Qatar


Few players reach the tenth anniversar­y of their internatio­nal debut and are still as important to their national team as Raheem Sterling is to England. Named in every squad for which he has been available since appearing at his first World Cup in 2014, his inclusion in the 26-man party travelling to Qatar was never in

doubt. He was widely regarded as his country’s player of the tournament during the run to last year’s European Championsh­ip final. He is one of the foundation stones of the Gareth Southgate era. He was always going to be on the plane.

Sterling’s longevity at this level since making his bow as a 17year-old a decade ago – in a 4-2 friendly defeat to Sweden, during the first year of the Roy Hodgson era – comes despite playing in a position that has had the fiercest competitio­n for places, especially of late. Several fresher-faced but less experience­d talents have emerged to challenge for a regular starting spot in Southgate’s attack – and several of them will travel to Qatar, James Maddison being just the latest – but Sterling remains the man in possession. It is still him and Harry Kane plus one up front.

In fact, of all the goals scored during the six years of Southgate, he and Kane are responsibl­e for more than a third of them. And even if you correctly suspect that the England captain is doing most of the heavy lifting on that count – 46 compared with Sterling’s 17 – Kane would not have amassed that many without his closest thing to an internatio­nal strike partner. Sterling has assisted him seven times in all, the most goals that one England player has set up for another since the turn of the century.

He simply has not given Southgate cause to look elsewhere, and that is still the case, even amid questions about his form at club level. Sterling’s first few months as a Chelsea player have not

gone as smoothly as he would have liked. A steady start under Thomas Tuchel, playing in his preferred position, was abruptly cut short. There was a goal in Graham Potter’s first game in charge, but there has been only one more since, at least partly due to experiment­s with him as a wing-back. Having missed Saturday’s defeat away to Newcastle through illness, Sterling travels to Qatar after five goals in 19 appearance­s for his new club.

That form is something Southgate hopes to address with the player this week. “The first thing is to be able to sit and talk to players, look them in the eye and find out what is going on,” he said of Sterling at the squad unveiling. “Raheem has had a change of club and his scoring at the start was very good. He’s had a change of manager within that. There will have been changes in training, tactical approaches. He has had three managers in a short space of time if you go back to City as well. There is a lot to take on for a player when they move club.”

Yet, as the England manager will know well, it is not like Sterling hasn’t been here before. There were similar doubts before the start of last year’s Euros, during the beginning of the end of his Manchester City career. They were put to bed by winning goals against Croatia and the Czech Republic, as Sterling ended the group stage as England’s only goalscorer. Then he found the breakthrou­gh against Germany too, setting

up that statement 2-0 victory in the last 16. He was the standout performer in the quarter-final against Ukraine in Rome too. No player did more to push Southgate’s side into the last four.

That summer was the product of a long upward trajectory at internatio­nal level that started one night in Seville. Sterling credits the 3-2 win over Spain in October 2018 as the turning point in his internatio­nal career. Having gone more than three years without scoring for his country before that night, his two goals not only helped add substance to England’s unexpected World Cup semi-final appearance a few months earlier, but also quietened his most persistent critics. There have been 15 goals in his 33 appearance­s since.

Sterling once joked that, if he was yet to truly blossom for England, it was because “the gaffer takes me off early”. It was at least partly true – he had completed only five sets of 90 minutes under Southgate back then – but it is not any more.

He has started all but one of the competitiv­e fixtures he has been available for since that night, being substitute­d before the hour mark only once, and that when already 3-0 up against San Marino. A captain of his country on four occasions now, he has his manager’s total trust.

In return, Southgate has Sterling’s full respect. Ask those who know him well and they will say that he especially looks forward to England’s camps, which he has come to regard as safe havens

– open, collaborat­ive spaces where he can escape the everyday noise and simply focus. If there were points over the past decade when an England shirt appeared to weigh heavy on his shoulders, that has not been the case for a long time now. If anything, the opposite is true.

After the turbulence of him changing clubs and his new club changing managers over the last six months, that sense of familiarit­y can only be of benefit over the next month. And despite now having a decade of internatio­nal experience behind him, Sterling will not turn 28 until the quarter finals of this World Cup. If the teenager who made his debut in Stockholm 10 years ago had planned out the career ahead of him, he would have targeted this tournament as the time to hit his peak. He still can and, as he did at the Euros, send a reminder of his enduring importance to this England team.

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 ?? (The FA/Getty) ?? The Chelsea forward was first capped by England 10 years ago and is set to surpass 80 caps
(The FA/Getty) The Chelsea forward was first capped by England 10 years ago and is set to surpass 80 caps
 ?? (Poo l /Reuters) ?? Ster ling was England’s best attacker on their run to the Euros final
(Poo l /Reuters) Ster ling was England’s best attacker on their run to the Euros final
 ?? (The FA/Getty) ?? Southgate has remained loyal to Sterling throughout his time as England manager
(The FA/Getty) Southgate has remained loyal to Sterling throughout his time as England manager
 ?? (Getty) ?? Sterling has consistent­ly delivered for England
(Getty) Sterling has consistent­ly delivered for England
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