It was the sense of inevitability that really showed how far Raheem Sterling has come.
When the livewire Manchester City forward twisted the yard of space he needed inside the Czech Republic box and drew back his weaker foot, Wembley expected.
Sterling whipped an unerring finish past visiting goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka for his second of the night. A deflected hat-trick goal sealed a dominant 5-0 win for Gareth Southgate’s England team, who are threatening to turn the World Cup wave they rode last year into a relentless, rolling tide across international football.
Russia 2018 gave England fans a batch of new heroes and a number of unquestionable success stories. Ranking alongside Pep Guardiola as his harshest critic, Sterling would not have put himself among that number.
His tireless, intelligent running made him a nightmare for defenders in all six of his tournament appearances, but the goals would not come. A couple of botched chances in the quarter-final win over Sweden had something of a rabbit-in-headlights quality. The openings looked as much a burden for his twisting, skilful frame as they were opportunities to be the hero.
England’s general drop-off whenever Sterling was substituted in Russia underlined his importance to the cause, but a forward failing to score will always divide opinion. His first 45 England appearances brought two goals.
But on Friday at a national stadium a stone’s throw from his childhood home, Sterling was a sure thing, as had been the case in the EFL Cup final here last month.
Then, a nerveless Sterling dispatched the decisive penalty to give City shoot-out glory against Chelsea. He was a reliable difference-maker, a match-winner par excellence. Unfortunately for the Czech Republic, this is now a role he revels in for club and country.
— England (@England) March 22, 2019
England’s 24th-minute opener came from the sort of close-range finish Sterling is close to making his trademark. Harry Kane and the effervescent Jadon Sancho pulled the away defence apart and their fellow attacker slid home.
“Tap-in merchant” will be the cry from the ever-thinning band of detractors, but everyone would be doing it if it was that easy. Sterling’s reading of the game is razor sharp, his movement judicious and never far from an opponent’s weakest point.
A panicked mess of a back four combined to send him tumbling in first-half stoppage time, with Kane effectively sealing the points from the penalty spot.
Sterling had ripped open a team set up for stubborn resistance. After the Czech Republic threatened in an attacking sense early in the second half, he administered the finishing blows before resting up on the bench as Callum Hudson-Odoi became England’s youngest competitive debutant and brought about an own goal of the slapstick variety from Tomas Kalac.
When he celebrated that second goal – the one where he had beleaguered defenders and the Wembley masses in the palm of his hand – Sterling unveiled a shirt paying tribute to Damary Dawkins, the 13-year-old Crystal Palace youth-team player who tragically passed away earlier this week following a battle with Leukaemia.
Not for the first time over recent months, Sterling the man was every bit as impressive as Sterling the footballer. He has become the symbol of an England side with an adoring public that has responded emphatically to Southgate’s demands for maturity and expressiveness.
The Sterling who arrived in Russia to diligently carry out a brief of the hard yards was an excellent footballer and a Premier League champion. Now, he is so much better. He is a superstar and an inspiration.
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