Raheem Sterling shows once again why England and Gareth Southgate so enjoy having him around

The dwindling glass half-empty crowd will tell you Raheem Sterling does not take his chances, they will point to his England goals record and complain his end product is not good enough. They will have cheered when he was replaced by Marcus Rashford in Moscow.

But these are the people who stand on the edge of the dancefloor grumbling the music is rubbish, moaning the queue at the bar is too long and trying to poke fun at those enjoying themselves.

They find it amusing to routinely give Sterling the lowest mark, when given the chance to rate the England players’ performances. But the joke has been on the joyless in Russia.

By focussing solely on Sterling’s shortcomings, the bedroom critics deny themselves the thrill of appreciating his many strengths. His explosive pace, which rattled Croatia defenders Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, his willingness to run and defend for the team, his ability to pull wide on to either flank.

At international level, Sterling’s qualities often seem to be appreciated more by the opposition than many of England’s fans. Croatia’s Zlatko Dalic became the latest manager to pick him out as the chief threat to his side, as Gareth Southgate was forced to once again defend the 23-year-old.

Ahead of England’s biggest game in 28 years, Southgate said: “If you look at our attacking patterns and the way our front four have combined, Raheem’s been instrumental. He’s appreciated by the team. I’ve had messages from ex-players with the same view. His work ethic without the ball has been incredible. He’s a huge threat.”

Raheem Sterling in action

Sterling’s movement caused Croatia’s plenty of problems

Credit:
Getty images

He was all of that on Wednesday night, whatever those who will have been glad to see him hooked might tell you.

Vida breathed a huge sigh of relief after just about managing to get to a long Jordan Pickford kick ahead of Sterling and it was more through good fortune than design that Lovren got in the way of an attempted Harry Kane through ball ahead of the Manchester City forward.

For the second successive game, Sterling was asked to play ahead of Kane on the shoulders of the opposition. It meant they could not risk defending high or stepping out from the back. They had to be aware of the man who they needed a five-yard headstart on to stop.

With the advantage of Kieran Trippier’s early opening goal, it was the perfect scenario for England to try to exploit and Lovren had to foul Sterling by the touchline after being embarrassed by his pace. He was fortunate not to be booked by referee Cunyet Cakir.

With Sterling remaining the player furthest up the pitch for England whenever Croatia had a corner, Dalic’s team always kept at least two, if not three, players back.

There was no clear-cut chance for Sterling to try to end his long goalless run, which stretches back to November 2015 for England, in the Luzhniki Stadium. He might have looked for a penalty when he tried to wriggle around Vida in the area, but he stayed on his feet and for once the Croatia defender came out on top.

As well as occupying Vida and Lovren, Sterling’s defensive work was vital for England. When Croatia were starting to press in the second half, he took the ball in his own half, turned and was fouled by Lovren. His team-mates could take a breath, reposition themselves and restore calm.

Sterling also dropped deep to nick the ball off the feet of Marcelo Brozovic and prevent the Croatia midfielder trying to launch a counter-attack. It was the type of thing those on the edge of the dancefloor would miss because they were concentrating too hard on having a bad time.

Shortly after Ivan Perisic had equalised, Sterling was quickly darting at the Croatia defence again and almost played in Kane, who, if truth be told, did not have one of his better games.

The joyless will have been reaching for their keyboards to register their mark as soon as they saw Sterling replaced by Rashford in the 74th minute. They will have taken it as vindication, as confirmation they could go to bed happy with their vote.

But those of us who still like a dance and a good time know that this World Cup, more than any other since 1966 for England, has been about enjoyment. And, despite his imperfections, Sterling is there to be enjoyed.

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