When Luke Shaw lifted a delightful ball over the top of the Czech Republic defence during the early stages of England’s 1-0 Euro 2020 win on Friday, Raheem Sterling was away.
Of course he was. The Manchester City’s forwards intelligent, incisive movement has been a vital asset for club and country over the past five years – a period in which he has become one of his country’s most decorated footballers in terms of major honours.
But what would happen next?
Could it be as bad as that time he blazed over two clear chances in the Manchester derby on a day City were 2-0 up and set to win the league against their bitter rivals and lost 3-2?
Maybe it would end up as wince-inducing as the open goal he missed when his club crashed out of the Champions League against Lyon in 2020 at the quarter-final stage, or the two-yard miss that persuaded Pep Guardiola to immediately substitute him at Burnley two years earlier?
Or the full campaign at Russia 2018 when he did not find the net during England’s run to the semi-finals?
Yes, Sterling misses chances. Quite a lot of quite good ones.
According to Opta, he scored 11 but missed 19 of the ‘big chances’ that fell his way for the Premier League champions in all competitions last season. It was part of the reason Guardiola increasingly left him on the bench.
But Sterling is the sort of player who always comes back for more. The sort who never hides – a quality that starts to look increasingly valuable amid the vicious maelstrom that is England at a major tournament.
Joy delayed but not denied
As it happened, the shot was not one to fit in with that catalogue of misses. Sterling dispatched a deft lob over Tomas Vaclik and was unfortunate to see the effort ricochet clear off the post, continuing a strange quirk for England games in this tournament. In the early knockings versus Croatia and Scotland, Phil Foden and John Stones each rattled uprights.
As was the case in both of those games, even the dour draw with Scotland – where Sterling created the best chance of the night for Mason Mount and had a reasonable late penalty claim rejected – the forward was a nuisance.
Gareth Southgate’s decision to bow to the Jack Grealish clamour and give Bukayo Saka a surprise start gave England a little more vibrancy, also allowing Sterling to pester the opposition defence more centrally and ensure Harry Kane was a less isolated figure. The England captain went close but remains without a goal in this tournament. Only one player has manged to score for the Three Lions.
You might struggle to remember Sterling was the matchwinner on the opening weekend against Croatia. Calls for Grealish and the perplexingly sidelined Jadon Sancho have left Sterling as a casualty in the XIs of many a pundit and fan.
The 26-year-old’s vile treatment by a section of the tabloid press has been well documented. But Sterling scepticism goes far beyond such reactionary outposts.
After his second-half strike sunk Croatia and sent England on their way to top spot in the group, the BBC television interviewer asked whether Sterling had justified his place in the team, despite being the Three Lions’ top scorer from open play since Russia 2018.
The Athletic, very much the antithesis of the UK red tops, ran an article in the build-up to the Czech Republic game where eight of its writers picked their England XI. Two featured Sterling.
The annoying one
He is, at times, an annoying footballer. That is not just down to the catalogue of horror misses outlined above.
A source told Stats Perform this year that an aspect of improvement identified for Sterling by Guardiola’s coaching staff was his control of the ball, which seems a staggeringly basic thing for a star forward in a high-end football team. There was an example of this when he sold Kalvin Phillips short with a very routine pass after half-time, forcing the Leeds United midfielder into a foul for which he was fortunate not to be booked.
But again, we return to that capacity to make things happen, which feels vital for an England team constructing 90-minute portions where not much happens.
When things do happen, it is thrilling and you wish they happened more often.
Saka tore at the Czech Republic in the 12th minute – left-back Jan Boril will not reflect too fondly upon having shared a pitch with the livewire Arsenal youngster.
His eventual delivery found its way to Grealish, who clipped a delightful left-footed cross to the back post. Sterling couldn’t miss. Well, as discussed above, he could. But he didn’t, nodding home to stand tall in a time of need for Southgate once more.
Saka and Grealish hogged the initial post-match conversation, not undeservedly. Stones and the returning Harry Maguire marshalled the backline superbly and Shaw impressed going backwards and forwards.
Three clean sheets out of three are not to be sniffed at. But England’s tendency for lulls in-game and to trudge through some stodgy moments still feels regrettable given the attacking talent at Southgate’s disposal.
The Czech Republic were beaten 5-0 in the opening qualifier for Euro 2020 and England looked a team to be feared in a way they don’t right now. Sterling, in red-hot form, scored a hat-trick.
Whether his national team are soaring high or quietly plugging, time and again he has shown his worth.
There are plenty of causes for concern around this England team. The man who has scored the winning goal in each of their victories and always makes life miserable for opposition defenders is absolutely not one of them.
Stop dropping Sterling from the XIs you put on Twitter. It makes you look silly.
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