Gareth Southgate jokes England’s strength gives him ‘headache’ picking team
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After a start to the season defined by frustration with Manchester City, Raheem Sterling was handed the opportunity to remind everyone of his undoubted qualities for England against Hungary at Wembley. Pep Guardiola might not fancy him at the moment, but Sterling knows that Gareth Southgate will always be president of his fan club.
The biggest and most obvious talking point which stemmed from Southgate’s selection to face Hungary in the World Cup qualifier centred on Phil Foden.
After a star performance in the 5-0 demolition of Andorra last week, Foden was given the chance to build on it against better opposition.
Southgate gave a considered answer when asked by ITV before the match whether it was a “simple” decision to start the Man City youngster alongside Declan Rice in midfield.
His response when quizzed on Sterling told you all you needed to know about Southgate’s stance on the 26-year-old forward. Was his selection straightforward tonight?
“Yes, completely,” Southgate said immediately. “He’s such an important player for us. His goals have been the difference for us for so long and we’ve got total faith in him.”
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Of course, Southgate’s faith is well-founded. Sterling has been England’s stand-out player for some time. He scored England’s first three goals at Euro 2020. He has developed into a dependable outlet for his country.
Yet the fact his selection was the topic of a pre-match question tells you much about Sterling’s current situation at Man City.
Sterling has frequently been dropped by Guardiola, with five of his seven Premier League appearances this season coming off the bench.
His only goal in 10 appearances so far this season came against strugglers Norwich City back in August.
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The £100million arrival of Jack Grealish, the continued rise of Foden and the relentless competition with Riyad Mahrez, Ferran Torres and Gabriel Jesus has sidelined Sterling this season. Guardiola’s 4-3-3 formation suddenly looks like it doesn’t suit him.
There have been rumblings of discontent and mooted transfer interest from Barcelona ahead of the January transfer window. That eventuality remains a long way off.
But England’s 1-1 draw against Hungary highlighted again why the doubts about Sterling should not be brushed off.
Man City provided five of the starting 11 players, with Kyle Walker and John Stones joining Sterling, Foden and Grealish on the pitch. And with his club team-mates alongside him, Sterling’s problems continued for his country.
While Foden was presented the chance to impress in a new position, Stones scored England’s equaliser after Roland Sallai’s early penalty and Grealish looked the team’s most dangerous player, Sterling was frequently frustrated.
In first half stoppage time he had a great chance to score after Luke Shaw chipped a delicate cross to the back post, but his header was straight at Peter Gulacsi and he could not convert the rebound either.
After the break, he got free down the right but could not find Harry Kane with his low cross. And it was Kane who should have been rewarded with an assist minutes later.
The England captain slipped in his strike partner with a through-ball, but Sterling could only fire his first-time shot into Gulacsi. A more confident Sterling might have opted to go around the on-rushing goalkeeper.
That was his – and his team’s – best and final chance. Sterling was substituted alongside Kane in the 75th minute and he will return to Man City in the coming days ahead of Saturday’s match against Burnley.
He might not be thinking about it now, but he has a decision to make in the near future.
“Of course he’s got a big decision to make because he’s well within his rights to doubt what his future is at that club,” ex-Arsenal striker Ian Wright said on ITV.
Former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane added: “He’s definitely had some sort of bust-up with Pep, there’s something gone on there and they’ve brought Grealish in.
“But when you work with top managers, and big clubs when they’re competing for trophies, that’s part of the package and 20 months on his contract is a long way away.”
The coming months look like they will go a long way to deciding Raheem Sterling’s future at Manchester City.
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