Raheem Sterling has risen to every obstacle in his career and Gareth Southgate fully expects the forward to overcome the “next challenge” of flourishing for England.
A shining light as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City romped to the Premier League title last term, there were naturally high hopes that the 23-year-old would take that form into the World Cup.
Sterling impressed in parts but was unable to make a telling impact in front of goal in Russia, with the forward’s goalless run extending to an eye-watering 27 matches in Friday’s goalless Nations League draw against Croatia.
That night he was substituted for the fifth match in succession, but Southgate backed Sterling to shine for the Three Lions as he looks to score his first international goal in 1,102 days against Spain.
“If we had the answer to that, we’d probably have resolved it a few games ago,” Southgate said ahead of Monday’s Nations League clash in Seville.
“What do we do? We’ve got to keep getting him in the right positions. We’ve got to create chances for him and he’s got to keep getting in the right areas.
“The other night I don’t really remember him (having a chance).
“There was a ball that flashed across the box and he was just in behind the defender when he’s got to try to get across the front of those if he can.
“But I think it is going to be a confidence thing that when the goal comes he will go on a scoring run.
“For all our attacking players, we’ve got to make sure we are creating chances and that we are in the right areas and then they’ve just got to go and finish them.”
Asked if confidence was an issue with Sterling, Southgate said: “I don’t think his confidence is low, but I think there are times when maybe you can think a little bit too much about what you’re doing in certain moments.
“It’s about having the freedom just to hit things.
“This is one of the big challenges of international football. You know with your club – well, with his club – you get another five chances in the next 10 or 15 minutes.
“You get fewer chances with us and you have sporadic games, so you don’t get another go next week.
“This is part of dealing with international football and that is his next challenge.
“But I have to say every challenge that has been put in front of him throughout his career – new players coming in, for example, over the last couple of years (at City) – he’s risen to those challenges.
“He’s been tough enough to deal with those challenges and I expect him to come through this.”
Roberto Mancini felt his Italy side should have seen Poland off well before the stoppage-time winner which earned a narrow 1-0 victory in Chorzow.
Cristiano Biraghi struck in the second minute of added time to earn the Azzurri victory and relegate Poland from Nations League League A Group 3.
Lorenzo Insigne’s corner was flicked on by Kevin Lasagna and Biraghi turned the ball in at the back post. It was no less than the visitors deserved following 18 attempts at goal, with Jorginho and Federico Chiesa both denied by the crossbar in the first half.
Mancini said on the UEFA website: “We dominated the game completely and should have scored earlier. A 0-0 draw would have been an unfair result.”
The win means the Azzurri can still reach the finals ahead of Portugal, their opponents next month.
Mancini added: “We played very well but we can still improve a lot. In football you only need time and hard work, magicians do not exist.
“We need more time to build a team, but I am very pleased with today’s game and result. There’s a long way ahead of us, but the most important thing is that the players show tonight’s mentality in the upcoming games.”
Biraghi, the Fiorentina captain, dedicated his goal to Davide Astori, who died in March following a heart attack. He was 31.
Biraghi said: “Astori is a part of me. I dedicate my goal to him because if I’m here it is only thanks to him and all the things he taught me when we played together.
“The victory was fully deserved even if the ball didn’t go in after all the chances we created.
“After missing so many opportunities, you can easily lose the game because the tension can be tricky. We never give up, so this victory belongs to the whole group.”
Gareth Southgate feels the Premier League started too early this season on the back of the World Cup in Russia – with England’s run to the semi-finals catching out those in charge.
Questions have been asked as to whether a number of players who went deep into the tournament are now struggling with tiredness having not been afforded a proper rest.
Three Lions captain Harry Kane has been constantly knocking back suggestions that he is fatigued, while England boss Southgate lost five members of his current squad through injury.
The English top-flight returned on August 10, a week before LaLiga and with Serie A starting eight days later and the Bundesliga a full fortnight on.
Speaking ahead of England’s Nations League meeting with Spain in Seville, Southgate said the Premier League is suffering as a result of returning just 26 days after the World Cup final.
“I think it’s psychological freshness, rather than physical. Everyone adapts their training load appropriately,” he replied when asked if he felt players had started the season more slowly than in other years.
“But I think when you see the league, there are probably a lot of teams that haven’t started yet at the level when they are at their maximum.
“There have been lots of injuries across our league, I don’t know about the rest of Europe.
“It is a balance. I don’t really understand why our league started so early, but they did, so it is a really difficult situation for the clubs.
“Look at Tottenham, who had so many players in the semi-finals of the World Cup they had to put their players straight into matches on the back of very little pre-season, so it was an impossible situation for the coaches really.”
Southgate suggested England’s run to the semi-finals may have been an unexpected success – even if the dates of the World Cup had been known well in advance.
“I hadn’t looked into when the season started until when we got back from the tournament,” he said. “Maybe they were expecting us to be back by the end of June. I assumed the rest of the world were going to be there until the middle of July.
“It’s always easy to make a comment like that and not know the complex scenario the decision-makers had to go to, because that happens to me quite a lot. I think everybody knew when the final was going to be and the semi-final and that they would be away for a period of time.”
He also pointed a finger at the scheduling for Premier League games for those clubs who play in the Champions League and Europa League – where games are often moved to the detriment of the English side.
“It’s a bit like our clubs in the Champions League,” he added. “Some of the rest of the leagues in Europe help them and adjust the fixture list and I’m sure our clubs would appreciate that because in the end they’re representing English football and we want them all to do well.”