Villain of the piece Sterling fits perfectly into the puzzle

None of England's 11 goals so far in Russia have been scored by Raheem Sterling but his coach Gareth Southgate believes that the forward has been fundamental to the way the team have played.
None of England's 11 goals so far in Russia have been scored by Raheem Sterling but his coach Gareth Southgate believes that the forward has been fundamental to the way the team have played.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

REPINO • Raheem Sterling once said he has the kind of face that people just do not like. He called it the face of a brat. Winning over fans has continued to be difficult for the 23-year-old even as the feel-good factor sweeps around England.

He ranks among the most contentious, skilled and expensive of players in English football.

For some, he is a role model for young black Britons of bootstraps-up achievement. For others, he is the perennial bad boy, alternately overpaid and profligate or mean-spirited and tight-fisted, depending on the story du jour.

Perhaps fittingly, this World Cup has shown two sides of Sterling: the talent with the quick feet and trickery and the wasteful forward whose final touch has been wanting.

None of England's 11 goals in Russia have been scored by the Manchester City star. The BBC's interactive player ratings has given him the poorest score of any player in Gareth Southgate's side, while some pundits have called for Marcus Rashford to start against Croatia at Sterling's expense.

But for all his critics, Sterling has the support of the most important man - Southgate.

"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," the England manager told the ITV World Cup podcast.

"He was a constant threat to Sweden (in the quarter-finals). Of course he hasn't scored the goals we would have liked to score but for myself and the players he has been a crucial part of the way we have been playing."

Former England striker Peter Crouch also defended Sterling, who has scored just two goals in 42 England appearances.

"People have become fixated about his finishing at the World Cup but it is crucial to look at the bigger picture - Raheem gives us so much," he wrote in his column for the Daily Mail. "He is quick, skilful and determined, always provides a threat and Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli all benefit from the space he creates."

Sterling's pace is expected to be a big factor today as he should cause problems for Croatia centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, who are not known for their speed.

The only certainty is that if England make the final, Sterling will have a smile on his face.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2018, with the headline 'Villain of the piece Sterling fits perfectly into the puzzle'. Print Edition | Subscribe