It was a familiar setting for England at a major tournament. One game into Euro 2016 and the knives were out, most of them pointing menacingly at the self-proclaimed ‘Hated One’.
A poor performance in a 1-1 draw with Russia during the Group B opener in France saw Raheem Sterling endure the brunt of the criticism.
The consistently polarising figure took to Instagram in the aftermath: “Really unlucky today, on a good team performance really deserved the win, but we go again. Proud of all the boys #England #raheemsterling #TheHatedOne.”
It only served to antagonise the angry mob and the Three Lions would unconvincingly sneak through a relatively comfortable group before being sent home with their tails between their legs by minnows Iceland in the round of 16.
Two years on, and the mood around the England camp couldn’t be more different at the World Cup. Yet, Sterling – tipped to be a key player ahead of the tournament – is still the most castigated individual.
The fact he divides opinion like no other player in the current England set-up is especially intriguing because the reasoning behind it is flimsy at best. Forcing his way out of Liverpool in 2015 could be identified as a turning point for Sterling.
A disappointing debut campaign with Manchester City followed, one which saw his £50 million purchase regularly alluded to and subsequent performances with England ensured even a casual breakfast run would provoke admonishment, never mind a striking tattoo.
After 23 goals and 12 assists across all competitions with City in the past season though, Sterling seems to have turned over a new leaf under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola. Naturally, expectations of him were high going into the World Cup but he’s yet to live up to them.
Calls for Gareth Southgate to drop the 23-year-old in favour of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford have grown in decibel level but are largely misguided.
Those expecting Sterling to replicate his displays with City were always going to be kept waiting. The Citizens operate in a vastly different system and the Englishman’s role in it is hardly similar to what’s asked of him with the national team.
At City, the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva have the guile and ingenuity in midfield to pull the strings and find Sterling’s darting runs in behind the defence with surgical precision. Such midfield maestros don’t exist in the England set-up and the onus is instead on Sterling to make inroads or create space, on and off the ball.
While it may look as if he often zips around without purpose, he is executing a key role for his team-mates – particularly Harry Kane. Given the lack of creativity through the middle, Sterling is tasked with pulling defenders out of position and that involves a lot of dummy runs as much as it does carrying the ball himself and attracting players towards him.
Jesse Lingard deservedly took the plaudits for his superb strike against Panama during a 6-1 win but few noticed the give and go with Sterling which set it up as the City star drew in three defenders in the process. His ability to disorientate defences will be absolutely key against a stubborn Sweden back-line.
This is not to say that he’s had a sensational tournament. There’s definitely plenty of scope for improvement and he’ll want to make more of an impact than his subtle contributions to the system, as crucial as they are.
Firing his country into the semi-finals would be a great start.
Belgium goalkeeper Courtois got involved in a bizarre spat over his England counterpart when he suggested, because he is taller, he might have saved Adnan Januzaj‘s winner when the two sides met in the World Cup last week.
Januazaj scored the only goal as Belgium beat England 1-0 in a group encounter in Kaliningrad.
Courtois feels his comments have been taken out of context to make it seem as if he was belittling the Everton player.
Speaking after Belgium’s semi-final win over Brazil, the Chelsea keeper told BBC Sport: “This thing about Jordan – I want to say and clarify it because I heard a lot of stuff.
“I never mocked his height, I want to make that clear, because I would never mock the height of a goalkeeper. I think he is a great goalkeeper. He proved that this year.
“I only said that, because he got a touch, I would have saved it because I am 15 centimetres taller, but I never mocked his height. He is a great goalkeeper. I want to make that clear.”
Kevin De Bruyne felt Belgium proved to the world how good they are with their stunning victory over Brazil on Friday.
Belgium shocked the five-time champions 2-1 in their World Cup quarter-final in Kazan to set up a last-four clash with France.
De Bruyne himself was outstanding, getting on the scoresheet with a fierce long-range strike after his Manchester City team-mate Fernandinho had put through his own net.
Brazil did reply through substitute Renato Augusto late on but Belgium withstood considerable pressure to prevail.
De Bruyne told BBC Sport: “It is not easy to play against Brazil, they are such a wonderful team.
“But the power we have as a team has shown today, especially the first half. I think we played magnificently.
“The second half was very difficult and the last 15 minutes were a character test but I think we showed the world what we are capable of.”
There was controversy in the second half as Brazil had a strong penalty appeal turned down but Belgium made the most of their fortune.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois made a number of good saves in the second half, including an excellent fingertip stop to deny Neymar in injury time.
The Chelsea keeper said: “I think I have been unfairly criticised a lot of times this year. OK, maybe sometimes I could have saved more but the amount of things I got I don’t think was always fair.
“I think today I proved why I am here and I am happy with that.”
The foundations for victory were laid by manager Roberto Martinez, who made some tactical changes which, most notably, allowed De Bruyne to play in a more advanced role than previous games.
As a result Belgium dominated the first half but Martinez said the players deserved most credit.
He said: “It is the execution of the tactics that matters. The execution was magnificent. I couldn’t be prouder.
“They were incredible – incredible hearts out there. You have to accept Brazil have this finesse, this quality and they are going to break you down. But they didn’t accept that.
“I didn’t think for one minute they were going to give up. This is something special. These boys deserve to be really special people back in Belgium. I hope everyone in Belgium is very, very proud.”
Brazil coach Tite was magnanimous in defeat, saying in his post-match press conference: “It was a great game with two teams of incredible technical qualities.
“With all the pain I feel, it is difficult to come to talk to you, but if you like football you have to watch this game.
“We had a lot of the game, more possession and created chances. In terms of effectiveness we didn’t translate that into goals. They did.”
Tite was unwilling to discuss his future or the penalty appeal in which Gabriel Jesus appeared to be caught by Vincent Kompany but nothing was given, even after a VAR review.
Tite said: “The only thing I would have liked was to have seen the VAR replays in the play with Gabriel.”