Raheem Sterling was key to England's win over Denmark

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Whatever happens in Sunday’s final, one winner was surely decided on Wednesday night at Wembley. Raheem Sterling has not only been England’s star of the tournament, but also the player of these European Championships.

For all the excellent performances throughout the squad, Sterling, the boy from Brent, has done more than anyone else to fire England to their first major tournament final since 1966.

Jorginho has been excellent for England’s final opponents Italy, Harry Maguire and John Stones have been outstanding for Gareth Southgate’s team. But Sterling has been a match-winner, either with his goals, his assists, or, as was the case against Denmark, by winning the decisive penalty.

The arguments may rage in Denmark over whether or not Sterling should have been awarded a spot-kick in extra-time, but he frightened the life out of England’s opponents all night – just as he has all tournament.

“It was a clear penalty. I went into the box and he stabbed his right leg out,” said Sterling. “As long as it goes into the back of the net, that’s all that matters.”

Sterling was unstoppable in the semi-final. The Danish defenders simply could not cope with him and he would have had a goal of his own had Simon Kjaer not bundled Bukayo Saka’s cross into his own net.

WHAT A RESPONSE FROM #ENG! @BukayoSaka87 puts it on a plate… and Kjaer can only divert the ball into his own net! #ENGDEN | #ITVFootball | #Euro2020 pic.twitter.com/XdqeXugLZA

— ITV Football (@itvfootball) July 7, 2021

Kasper Schmeichel also made a brilliant save to deny Sterling in the first half after he had almost got on the end of a Harry Kane cross inside the opening 10 minutes.

Kane may yet end up as England’s top scorer, but he knows only too well the huge part Sterling has now played in two of his four goals. The pass against Ukraine was perfect and the speed at which he ran at the Danish defence after 114 minutes of football was breathtaking.

Sterling has started every game, but was still playing at breakneck speed in extra-time, when England’s opponents could barely manage to break into a jog, let alone a run.

Major tournaments have previously sparked debates over Sterling’s involvement, but his performance at these Euros should be remembered as some of the best in the country’s history – whether or not England go on to beat Italy. 

The fact it has come at the end of what was a frustrating personal season for Sterling at Manchester City makes it even more remarkable. Ahead of these Euros, the Premier League champions were willing to listen to offers for the 26-year-old, but surely they cannot let him go now.

Given City’s interest in Kane, the understanding Sterling has developed with England’s captain may well have caught manager Pep Guardiola’s eye. 

Playing the majority of this tournament just a stone’s throw from where he grew up, Sterling, who has the Wembley arch tattooed on his arm, has risen to the occasion like a man with a point to prove.

Whether it is the motivation of silencing his doubters, righting the wrongs of his domestic season or simply enjoying a fresh environment, Sterling has been reinvigorated and has not looked back since scoring his first-ever major tournament goal in the opening group game against Croatia.

All of Sterling’s contributions have come at vital moments. His goals against Croatia and Czech Republic were the winners, he opened the scoring in the victory over Germany, set up Kane’s opener against Ukraine and won the penalty that took England to the final on Wednesday night.

Raheem Sterling wins England's crucial penalty

Credit: REUTERS

Before the tournament, people were expecting the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku to take over, but it has been Sterling who has dominated.

Every time England have needed a breakthrough or a lift, Sterling has stood up and provided it, and he has been instrumental in Kane rediscovering his goalscoring form just when it has mattered.

Make no mistake that it will be Sterling who Italy will be concentrating on trying to stop as they prepare to face England over the next few days. The way 36-year-old Giorgio Chiellini and 34-year-old Leonardo Bonucci tired against Spain will give Southgate plenty of encouragement that his star player’s pace will be too much for them.

One more big performance from Sterling may well be enough to get England over the line. But his contribution on the way to the final has surely already clinched his individual recognition.