Raheem Sterling was England's match-winner against Croatia
Credit: OFFSIDE VIA GETTY IMAGES
Scoring for England at Euro 2020 at the stadium in whose shadow he grew up was always going to be emotional for Raheem Sterling, particularly after failing to find the net in three previous major tournaments, but his goal against Croatia at Wembley on Sunday felt cathartic in another way, too.
There have been England players in the past who seem to have hankered for a return to the sanctuary of their clubs, away from the glare of the international spotlight.
But it says something both about the environment Gareth Southgate has established and Sterling’s difficulties in the final months of last season at Manchester City that this tournament could provide a release for the forward at a time when questions have been asked about his form and club future. It has certainly started that way.
Sterling, rightly or wrongly, has given the impression of a somewhat conflicted individual in more recent times, and what felt like coded comments in the wake of the 1-0 win over Croatia about there being “a lot of different reasons why I haven’t scored for my club” did little to change that.
It was, understandably, a quiet and sombre mood at the team hotel in the wake of City’s bitterly disappointing Champions League final defeat to Chelsea almost three weeks ago, but Sterling seemed more introspective than most.
He had started the game, unexpectedly, in what felt like a very public vote of confidence from the City manager, Pep Guardiola, whom he had confronted in March about losing his place. Yet, like many others in sky blue, Sterling struggled to do himself justice in Porto and looked to still be feeling the effects – mentally as much as physically – of several months in and out of the side.
Sterling started just half of City’s final 22 matches of the campaign – seven of which he did not feature in at all – and that was never going to be easy for a player who was firmly accustomed to starting all the time. He is, more than most, a momentum player and the loss of that regular berth seemed to knock him badly out of his stride.
Perhaps Southgate recognised as much while weighing up other factors, including that Sterling’s two main challengers for the left-sided forward role in this England team have had their own problems.
Sterling may have collected more bookings (two) than goals (one) for City since late February but Marcus Rashford managed just three goals in his final 17 appearances for Manchester United last term and appeared to be nursing the effects of shoulder and ankle problems while Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish – a transfer target for City as it happens – played only 207 minutes in the final few months of the season.
Rashford has also shown himself to be quite the impact substitute – the likes of RB Leipzig and West Ham would both testify to that – and perhaps better suited to coming off the bench than Sterling.
Speak to those around the England set-up and they say that Sterling has had the bit very much between his teeth, a man in a hurry to make his mark and one determined to put Scotland in their place back at Wembley on Friday.
He has been doing some meditating at the team’s St George’s Park base to help keep his mind clear and relax before going to bed and has certainly appreciated Southgate’s faith in him, even if, unsurprisingly, he took visible exception to a question asking if he had justified his selection against Croatia.
His match-winning turn provided all the answers his inquisitor needed, although he did miss an inviting chance in the second half and an opportunity to tee up Phil Foden in the first, a by-product perhaps of a disrupted end to last season.
Sterling could be forgiven for wondering if people have short memories – after all, he had scored 80 goals in 151 games for club and country before his appearance as an unused substitute against West Ham in late February triggered a downturn – but he would probably be the first to acknowledge that the country have been waiting for him to take his best form for City, and England in qualifiers, into a major tournament.
Talks about his future have been firmly parked for now, even if Sterling – 27 at the end of this year and facing a big decision over what he does next – has entered the final two years of his deal at City. All his focus is on winning the tournament with England, and if he manages that and plays a significant role in doing so, then he knows he will be in a strong negotiating position when any discussions do commence.