Gareth Southgate has come to the rescue of forward Raheem Sterling, who was criticised in the build-up to the World Cup, in Russia and admitted that the Manchester City star is a “fundamental” part of the England set-up.
Sterling has started four of England’s five games in the tournament so far, and while he has looked threatening on occasions, he has been unable to end his international goal drought that dates back to October 2015.
The 23-year-old doesn’t have a good goal record – managing to score just twice in 42 appearances for England – that too against modest sides Lithuania and Estonia, while his goalscoring record under Pep Guardiola last season was a career-best of 23 goals in 46 appearances, in what was City’s Premier League title-winning campaign.
And while Sterling was a major threat to Sweden’s defence in the quarter-finals and caused trouble time and again, finding pockets of space throughout, he missed a one on one chance when it came his way. But Southgate believes the forward has been contributing immensely in the cause of the team.
“I think Raheem has been fundamental to the way we have played – his movement, the positions he takes up, his pressing of the ball, his work rate for the team, the winning of free-kicks, the winning of corners, his speed to stretch teams,” Southgate told the ITV World Cup podcast.
“He was a constant threat to Sweden. Of course he hasn’t scored the goals he would have liked to score but for myself and the players he has been a crucial part of the way we have been playing.”
Sterling was widely criticised ahead of the World Cup for having a tattoo of a gun on his leg. A few pundits even went to the extent of saying he should be dropped from the squad.
And while he did respond to the noise surrounding his tattoo, explaining that it was a tribute to his father, who was shot dead in his birthplace of Jamaica when Sterling was just two-years-old – the way he has learned keeping criticism aside and focusing on the task at hand, is commendable, feels team mate Eric Dier.
“The way Raheem’s handled everything from when we met up until now has been incredible,” said Dier.
“It’s so clear to see if you were to watch back until now the importance he has on the team. He’s had a fantastic tournament so far and hopefully he can continue to have one in the next week.”
Now, as England get ready to enter a tough contest in the World Cup semi-final on Wednesday, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is of the view that Sterling will have an impact on the game and could be the difference-maker.
“I think Raheem Sterling is an important player because he is fast and dangerous alongside Harry Kane,” said Dalic ahead of Wednesday’s clash in Moscow.
The World Cup‘s second semi-final takes place as England face Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Here, we highlight some things to look out for at Russia 2018 on Wednesday.
Can England cope with the occasion?
England seemed to do a very decent job of handling the pressure on them as they beat Sweden 2-0 in the quarter-finals, and fans will hope that was a good sign for an even more seismic fixture.
This is the Three Lions’ first World Cup semi-final in 28 years, offering the opportunity of a first appearance in the final since the glory of 1966.
While the way Gareth Southgate‘s men respond to the situation remains to be seen, the growing excitement among the supporters has been clear.
Will Kane be a record-breaker?
Although Harry Kane did not score in the Sweden match on Saturday, the quarter-finals concluded with him at the top of the Golden Boot standings, and the England captain will be looking to take another step towards that prize against Croatia.
Also, should he add to what is currently a six-goal haul, he will break a record – he is currently level with Gary Lineker (Mexico 1986) in terms of most goals netted at a single World Cup by an England player.
More heroics from Pickford?
A number of England players have really shone in Russia and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is another among them.
The 24-year-old followed up his superb saves in the last-16 tie against Colombia with a number of fine stops on Saturday and it may well be further heroics from him, as much as from Kane, that sees England through.
Modric the main danger man?
Potentially the biggest individual threat England are set to encounter in the match is Croatia’s captain Luka Modric.
The Real Madrid man is widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world and gave a particularly eye-catching demonstration of what he can do with his fine strike in the 3-0 group-stage win over Argentina.
Modric’s team-mates Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic can also cause considerable problems.
Memories may well be cast back to England’s defeat on penalties in the last four of the 1990 tournament if this game goes to a shootout, but fans might not feel quite the same sense of dread this time that they have in the past, with the team’s first-ever World Cup win on spot-kicks having been secured against Colombia.
It should be noted, though, that Croatia have won in each of the last two rounds via penalties, and that while England have Pickford, who made such a superb stop to keep out Carlos Bacca’s effort from 12 yards, their opponents have, in Danijel Subasic, a goalkeeper who has pulled off four shootout saves so far in Russia.
England face Croatia on Wednesday looking for the win that will take them into their first World Cup final since 1966.
The Three Lions have only ever progressed to the semi-finals* of a major tournament three times previously.
Here, we take a look at how England got on in those matches.
England 2 Portugal 1 – 1966 World Cup semi-final (Wembley, London)
Portugal went into the clash boasting a 100 per cent record and having scored 14 times in four games, seven of which were notched by talismanic forward Eusebio.
However, it was hosts England who would emerge victorious at Wembley thanks to a brace from Bobby Charlton, who struck in the 30th and 80th minutes.
Portugal pulled a goal back from the penalty spot, Eusebio inevitably getting on the scoresheet again as he sent Gordon Banks the wrong way, but the Iberian nation could not find an equaliser. The rest, as they say, is history.
West Germany 1 England 1 (West Germany won 4-3 on pens) – 1990 World Cup semi-final (Stadio delle Alpi, Turin)
In what was England’s biggest game since winning the trophy against the same opponents 24 years previously, Bobby Robson’s men suffered the agony of a penalty shootout exit.
The match finished 1-1 after extra-time, with Gary Lineker firing home a late leveller after Andreas Brehme’s deflected 60th-minute shot had looped over a back-peddling Peter Shilton. In the shootout, all of the first six takers scored with their efforts.
However, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle then missed either side of Olaf Thon’s successful effort as England, for the first time at a major tournament but not the last, tumbled out on spot-kicks.
Germany 1 England 1 (Germany won 6-5 penalties) – 1996 European Championship semi-final (Wembley, London)
A familiar opponent and a familiar outcome for England as they fell short once again. Alan Shearer got the tournament hosts off to a flying start when he headed in the opener after just three minutes, but Stefan Kuntz slid home an equaliser soon after.
Neither side could find a winner during regulation or extra-time, meaning a shootout was required.
After all 10 players scored, it went to sudden death where Gareth Southgate saw his effort saved before Germany captain Andreas Moller smashed the decisive spot-kick into the roof of the net to send his side through to the final.
* England also played in the semi-finals of the 1968 European Championships but only four teams qualified for the tournament.