England vs Slovenia: Despite the hype, Raheem Sterling service still comes up short

Liverpool man, though young, still has a long way to go

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The Independent Online

Raheem Sterling might have been looking at his future when Wayne Rooney enacted his commemorative piece in receipt of his 100th cap from Sir Bobby Charlton.

Sterling occupies the ground which was once held by Rooney: a precocious youth of whom much is expected.

The great man child of English football is now the old head, a father and leader or men. His career has yielded 100 caps but not yet the international pot we all hoped it might a decade ago.

If anyone was going to change the direction of travel after generations of international failure, then this 19-year-old kid had as good a chance as any, or so we thought. Sterling has suffered this season in a faltering Liverpool side shorn of forward thrust.

And then he was too tired to start for England against Estonia, though not too fatigued for night-club duty on his return.

In a desperate first half there were many candidates for the hook, but arguably none more so than Sterling. Yet when he left the pitch after  83 minutes he got a standing ovation.

There was much to admire in the improved second half, not least his pass that released Danny Welbeck for the third goal, but if he is to remain at the centre of the England project, Sterling must learn to dominate a stage that was made for him.

This should have been the cue for Sterling to put his hand up, yet there was nothing during a woeful opening period  in which England perfected the art of possession on the halfway line.

When space is tight against an opponent intent on smothering the game beneath a defensive blanket it requires an instinctive bundle of creativity to make something happen and run at the opposition: the kind of intervention Sterling trademarked last season.

welbeck-second.jpg
Welbeck's second was much more impressively worked

He should have done better with his shot in the 16th minute after a sweet burst from Nathaniel Clyne, whose whipped cross was helped on by Rooney to Sterling’s feet. The connection was not great and the ball dribbled tamely wide.

There was one shimmy in the box that came to naught and a break down the right when he sent a deflected cross onto the head of Welbeck. Again the outcome was short of what it might have been.

It is true the pitch wasn’t great by modern, billiard-table standards, but even in this state the Wembley surface was better than anything Sir Bobby knew in his World Cup-winning days.

The sight of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Ross Barkley warming up at half-time acted like smelling salts on Sterling, who surpassed all his first-half efforts within minutes of the restart, skipping past  two tackles and creating genuine danger.

Stationed more on the right wing he and the team benefited by his defined role, and when he did slip off the leash he made it count, delivering the pass to Welbeck beautifully for England’s final thrust. 

This was more like it, but not yet enough to justify the hype that surrounds him.

Sterling is 20 next month – a boy  no more.

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