Sterling will be key for England at World Cup – and people should get used to it

He turned up on time, which was a good start, and he only squandered an early chance because it was on his left side and the world knows what foot Raheem Sterling guns best with.

Even a dive more distasteful than any lousy tattoo will not lower his elevated slot in Gareth Southgate’s estimation.

Even a couple of misses familiar in their finishing incompetence will not stop Sterling playing a key role in a fortnight’s time.

The socks covered any offence, the moments of threat covered his shoddy punctuality and an overall performance that ranged from incisive to ineffective.

The irony of Sterling not being able to shoot straight was probably not lost on every man, woman and child inside Wembley Stadium.


Yet he will still be rightly valued and indulged by Southgate, as he was when a walk in the park and the gentlest of reprimands were the only ramifications of him being one of many to lose track of time after jaunts to Ibiza and Jamaica.

Southgate said he might have considered dropping him but the kerfuffle over the rifle meant he needed ‘to protect and support him’.

Sterling does not need protection and support. He has skin so commendably thick, he probably did not notice the tattooist’s needle, anaesthetic or not.

Attacked by a racist hooligan only hours ahead of Manchester City’s date with Tottenham at this very stadium last December, he proceeded to score twice and run Spurs ragged.

He did not run Nigeria ragged – in the first half, Nigeria did that themselves – and his finishing was indeed in flaky mode but Sterling occasionally showed why he is a Southgate favourite.


Just as he was favoured by Roy Hodgson, to some extent justifying the faith as a 19-year-old at Brazil 2014, to a great extent letting him down at France 2016.

Such was the fierceness of the personal flak, Pep Guardiola – who had yet to press flesh with Sterling – felt compelled to make a reassuring phone call.

A nice touch but probably not needed by a young man accustomed to dealing with criticism.

He should get an extra dollop for simulation so obvious and embarrassing here, it gave play-acting a bad name.

It will not bother him, nor will the fact that he posted such a mixed performance.


He could claim an assist when Harry Kane added to Gary Cahill’s header but teenage goalkeeper Francis Uzoho is probably having that one.

According to Francis’s Wikipedia page, he was a late convert to the goalkeeping position. Yesterday, I assume.

Sterling, whose tally of 18 Premier League goals was commendable but probably close to the minimum return for opportunities enjoyed, could not find a way past Uzoho, sending one left-footer wide and another over the top.

That is the issue with Sterling. Few have Sterling’s potential to produce a shocking miss, few can provide his inspiration in and around the penalty area.

That is why he went to and featured in World Cup 2014, ditto Euro 2016.

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In a national team that wears its predictability like art on its calf, he gives the unpredictability that can be crucial in the biggest tests.

Besides, the first half danger caused by a fluid three of Sterling, Kane and Jesse Lingard appeals enormously to Southgate.

Despite the defensive doziness that allowed Alex Iwobi to give the Nigerians a single just reward, this is a formation that Southgate will surely take into the first game against Tunisia on June 18.

And Sterling – not for this showing but for what he CAN produce – will be a key player, like him or not, rate him or not.

Assuming they get him there on the correct day, his name is tattooed on Southgate’s most important team-sheet.

Everyone had better get used to it.

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