Sterling, the quicksilver enigma in Southgate's lineup

Source: Xinhua| 2018-07-08 19:38:04|Editor: mmm
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By Paul Giblin

SAMARA, July 8 (Xinhua) -- As the dust settles in Samara following England's 2-0 win over Sweden on Saturday afternoon, the Three Lions can look forward to a semifinal clash against Croatia in Moscow, while debate still rages over one of Gareth Southgate's key players: forward Raheem Sterling.

Sterling is a source of eternal frustration for some: quick and tricky with the ball at his feet, he certainly possesses the skills that perhaps no others in the England side have, yet he also has a tendency to frustrate.

Twice in the closing minutes of the first half his pace took him behind the Swedish defense with just the goalkeeper to beat and twice he let Sweden off the hook, seeming to lack the clinical finish that might be expected from Harry Kane.

His critics say Sterling too often gets into good positions, only to find his final pass is either long or short, and that perhaps Marcos Rashford may be a better alternative.

ESPN's Mark Ogden noted that Sterling's finishing touch has been an issue thoughout the entire World Cup campaign, and to an extent the numbers bear that out, with the BBC's interactive player ratings seeing him given the lowest mark of anyone in the England side. Meanwhile, his goalscoring statistics for England are below par for an international forward, with just 2 goals in 42 international appearances.

It would be tempting to say it's a confidence issue, but a look at his stats for Manchester City last season show he scored 18 goals in 33 matches in the Premier League and four more in eight Champions League appearances. At least at club level he isn't like a rabbit in the headlights in front of goal.

But, for all his critics, Sterling has more supporters, the most important of whom is Southgate, who has kept Sterling in his starting lineup, and the forward has a groundswell of support from several other important figures.

At halftime on Saturday, former England defender Gary Neville called online criticism of Sterling disgusting, while Gary Lineker, who knows a few things about scoring goals, commented that without his energy, movement, running, workrate and skill, England would not be the same, adding that England could not afford to lose Sterling.

Meanwhile, Matt Dickinson from The Times highlighted that, despite his missed chances, Sterling was the one who made things happen in the first half against a compact Swedish defense.

"Watch the game again and try to imagine it without his running trying to stretch Sweden," wrote Dickinson, in words echoed by many other reporters quick to defend the 23-year-old, who for all the frustration he causes, does offer something different, and something rivals struggle to deal with.

Next up are Croatia, who are technical and mobile in midfield and solid and tough in defense; the sort of side Sterling can find space against. There is no question that if he's fit he will start, although even his staunchest fan will probably be thinking: "Raheem, a goal would be nice."