After being shamed in the States, Raheem Sterling became Roy Hodgson’s main man in Manaus.
During England’s three-match build-up to last night’s opening World Cup match, Sterling had barely done anything in the public domain of note aside from embroil himself in an avoidable moment of controversy to earn a red card against Ecuador that raised questions about his readiness for the biggest stage of all.
But far from admonishing the prodigiously gifted teenager, Hodgson spoke glowingly in subsequent days about Sterling’s response in training – he was frequently the best on show when media were allowed to witness a complete session – using eye-catching adjectives “unstoppable” and “breathtaking” to describe his performances in practice.
The England manager was sufficiently moved, despite just 39 minutes’ evidence since naming his squad, to not only hand Sterling his third start, but deploy him in the No 10 position ahead of Wayne Rooney.
With De Rossi and Pirlo into their thirties – the latter considerably so – Sterling’s ability to press the ball high up the pitch and quickly transition into attack was in theory a catalyst for England’s counter-attacking.
He threatened more than that at the start. Sterling picked the ball up just inside the Italy half, beat two men and struck a rising effort from 25 yards which hit the side netting in a way that brought half the ground to its feet believing England had made the best possible start.
Back in February, Sterling revealed the key to his renaissance after a spell out of the team at Liverpool.
“I realised I need to stop being shy amongst the senior boys,” he said. “I needed to be more confident. You have to respect the senior players around you but you have to stamp your own mark on the game.”
It perhaps takes the fearlessness of youth to adopt the same approach on the international stage but Sterling did his best here.
Midway through the first half, Sterling popped up on the left flank and drifted past Marco Verratti with embarrassing ease before delivering an excellent ball across the six-yard box that Danny Welbeck was only denied the chance to convert by some robust Italian defending.
Sterling’s deployment was not an unqualified success, especially against someone as wily as Pirlo. Collectively, England were unable to prevent periods in which Pirlo dictated terms in a familiar re-run of Kiev two years ago and it was apt that he should have a key role in Italy’s opening goal, leaving the ball to run with delicious indifference for Claudio Marchisio to beat Joe Hart from 25 yards.
But going forward, England looked promising. Sterling regularly switched positions with Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge and Rooney in an interchanging of positions that prompted uncertainty in the Italian defence but it was from that central role that he helped to bring England level.
Sterling’s beautifully weighted defence-splitting pass freed Rooney on the left and Sturridge did the rest.
There is a genuine dynamism to England’s front four – plus the additional dimension of Everton’s 20-year-old Ross Barkley and Southampton’s Adam Lallana from the bench – that bodes well as England look to recover from this defeat.
They offer a combination of pace, invention and unpredictability that should give England a fighting chance of salvation, especially with Uruguay’s defence looking so shaky in Fortaleza and Costa Rica not guaranteed to replicate their marvellous display.
It took guts for Hodgson to opt for Sterling and that bravery did not get the reward it deserved. England’s defending continues to act as their Achilles’ heel – make that only nine clean sheets in 23 matches since their last tournament outing – but they threatened Italy more in attack here than in Ukraine to suggest that some form of progress has been made.
Hodgson’s England may well be flawed, especially against top level opposition – the wait for a tournament win against high-ranking opposition since defeating Argentina in the group stage in 2002 goes on – but the manager was right to give youth his head here.
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