Raheem Sterling realises his childhood Wembley dream to prove his value to England at Euro 2020

Sterling scored England’s winner against Croatia to suggest this could finally be his tournament to own and dominate

Mark Critchley
Wembley Stadium
Sunday 13 June 2021 16:43
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England national anthem rings out ahead of Euro 2020 clash with Croatia

There is a tattoo that runs down the back of Raheem Sterling’s left arm depicting a young boy wearing the No 10 shirt, looking up in hope and expectation at Wembley. The match-winner of this group stage opener with Croatia grew up in the shadow of English football’s spiritual home on Neeld Crescent, a road on the other side of the railway line that runs behind the national stadium. The arch is visible from the top of his street.

"As a young boy I used to walk around Wembley, or be on my bike,” he revealed three years ago, before travelling to the World Cup, a tournament that will live was not exactly a personal success. “Hopefully one day I can be wearing that number ten in that stadium, be in my hometown, and hopefully be the king of Wembley.” Today, the king of Wembley had his coronation.

Every little detail of that dream became a reality, right down the shirt number, and it was a moment that Sterling needed more than most other players. His form at club level has been underwhelming, at best, for several months now. His starting status is no longer secured under Pep Guardiola. Who knows, perform well for England during this tournament and he may earn a call-up for Manchester City.

Yet Sterling - honoured as the official man of the match - also needed this goal to convince some of his persistent England critics, too. This was, after all, his first tournament goal at his fourth tournament. His place in the starting line-up for this Group D opener was questioned - and not without reason - but Gareth Southgate has invariably trusted him as one of his three or four attacking threats.

The slick combinations that he, his club colleague Phil Foden and Mason Mount started with was the type of fluid, interchanging play rarely seen from England teams, even in 2018. His snapped finish past goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic for the goal was one of striking instinct, and an instinct that has too often eluded him of late.

It should not need to be said but it is important not to get carried away. This was a narrow win and the first half, from England’s perspective, was one of a lot of heat but little light. In the 29-degree sunshine bearing down on Wembley, they started strongly then wilted. Whether that was solely down to conditions or something more fundamental about the set-up is debatable.

In that respect, there was more than a hint of the 2018 semi-final about the pattern of this game. The key difference was that Croatia were no longer starting an established centre-forward - and a beanpole, at that - like the match-winner that night, Mario Mandzukic. Without a target for their crossing-heavy approach, they were oddly blunt and struggled to test Jordan Pickford.

England were fortunate in that respect, as Croatia did well to recover from England’s fluid start led by Sterling and Foden, then began to establish control through slow and safe possession. Had the World Cup finalists possessed more of a cutting edge, they may have turned this contest around and posed questions of Gareth Southgate’s in-game management, which was at best questionable during that Moscow semi-final.

Goals change games, though, and just as England were looking yet more ponderous at the start of the second half, they were bailed out by the boy from Brent in his own backyard. A mention must go to Kalvin Phillips - who showed agility and guile to set up the game’s only goal, as well as putting in an all-round display of harem intense running - but it was Sterling who made the difference.

The question is whether it will now make a difference for Sterling. If this precipitates a return to form, then that could make a significant difference to England’s chances of success. One of the best wide forwards in world football when on song, his international career has left something to be desired. This could finally be his tournament to own and dominate. After all, much of it is being held in his backyard.

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