Sunday, July 25, 2021
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Is this Sterling’s tournament?

Raheem Sterling watched with his head in his hands.

Six minutes after his opener, and with just nine minutes of the tie remaining, his loose pass had allowed Kai Havertz to send Thomas Muller sprinting through on goal. The equaliser felt like a crushing inevitability.

But it wasn’t. In fact, it never came. Muller took his shot early as Jordan Pickford rushed out to meet him and it rolled past the post. Dread made way for relief. The England fans around Wembley roared with delight. Five minutes later, their one-goal lead became two.

Gareth Southgate had been at pains to point out this fixture’s storied history was of little relevance to his youthful squad ahead of the game. The traumas of the past are not theirs to share, he said.

“This team are about making their own stories,” he added.

And that is exactly what they have done. England still have a long way to go in this tournament but they have defeated Germany in a competitive game at Wembley for the first time since 1966 and their route onwards to the final is an easily navigable one.

Their progress, and this seismic victory, owe a lot to a player who grew up in the shadow of the stadium in which it has all unfolded.

It was Sterling, raised in the London borough of Brent, who broke the deadlock at Wembley on Tuesday, side footing home from Luke Shaw’s cross, and it was Sterling whose goals against Croatia and the Czech Republic saw England through Group D.

The 26-year-old has been England’s outstanding performer at a tournament in which most followers would have been happy to see him named on the bench rather than in the starting line-up.

England players celebrate their win over Germany


Gareth Southgate was full of praise for his England players

Sterling had endured a difficult campaign with Manchester City domestically and, for many England supporters, memories of his performances at the 2018 World Cup are not fond ones.

Sterling, fiercely criticised before a ball had even been kicked in Russia over something as trivial as a tattoo on his leg, went on to miss a string of chances on their run to the semi-finals, extending a painful international goalless streak to 26 games for England and providing abundant ammunition for his critics.

But that barren run is a distant memory now.

Southgate’s faith in Sterling has never wavered and England are reaping the rewards. The forward is on three goals from four games at Euro 2020 but this goalscoring form is nothing new.

Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane celebrate at Wembley

Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane celebrate at Wembley

In fact, since the World Cup, Sterling has scored 15 goals in 21 appearances for his country.

It represents an extraordinary turnaround for a player who only scored twice in his 44 appearances before that and it explains why he now plays with such swaggering confidence in an England shirt.

That confidence could be seen early on at Wembley. Most of his England team-mates had started nervously, their sloppiness helping Germany impose themselves on the game, at one point threatening to take the lead when Leon Goretzka burst through midfield.

But not Sterling. On the contrary, his first contribution of note was to pick up possession on the left and cut inside his man before unleashing a curling strike from 25 yards out which required an acrobatic save from Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

Harry Kane


Harry Maguire hailed the impact England’s fans made at Wembley

It was England’s first effort of any kind and it helped to calm the early nerves. It was also typical of Sterling.

He may not be a leader as we traditionally imagine them but his willingness to shoulder responsibility when it’s needed is just one of the many reasons why he is so important to Southgate.

There were frustrating moments too, of course.

Twice in the space of a few minutes in the second half, Sterling dwelled on the ball too long in dangerous areas, losing possession before he could pick out one of the white shirts around him.

Raheem Sterling

But where once those moments of indecision might have thrown him off course, now they only embolden him. Not everything came off for him but Sterling was central to almost every positive moment.

Germany struggled with his speed and directness all evening. Sterling completed more dribbles than any other player on the pitch and it was his run into the German box which led to Harry Kane’s glorious opportunity to open the scoring before half-time.

Sterling repeatedly carried England forward and the opening goal was another example. He didn’t just finish off the move; he started it too, collecting Kyle Walker’s pass in the middle of Germany’s half before driving past Antonio Rudiger and feeding Kane.

England's Bukayo Saka goes for the ball ahead of Germany's Thomas Mueller during the Euro 2020 soccer championship round of 16 match between England and Germany, at Wembley stadium in London, Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Andy Rain, Pool via AP)


Gareth Southgate says his England side found the right balance between defence and attack in their 2-0 win over Germany

From there, he showed the intelligent and instinctive movement that marks him out as such a dangerous presence in the opposition box, continuing his run but then checking back to ensure he was onside when Shaw’s cross arrived at his feet.

Kane’s goal, headed home from Jack Grealish’s cross, ultimately made the result safe and it might have been a different story had that slack pass been punished by Muller.

But Sterling, still tirelessly closing down German defenders in stoppage time, was England’s true match-winner.

The boy from Brent may also represent their best hope of going on to lift the trophy.

Podcast: Southgate proves he knows best | Is final minimum for England? | Ukraine scouting report

No, you didn’t dream it. England have beaten Germany in a knockout game, winning 2-0 at Wembley on an historic night to clear the path through Euro 2020. Alice Piper is joined by Rob Dorsett, Pete Smith and Gerard Brand to discuss the famous victory, including how Gareth Southgate once again proved his critics wrong.

With Ukraine up next, and Denmark or Czech Republic waiting in the semi-final, is the final now a minimum expectation for England? With Southgate’s side favourites, how will they set up? Plus: praise for Sterling, Grealish, Saka, Pickford, Kane and… well, just about everyone.

And in part 3, Oli Yew pops in for a Ukraine scouting report after their last-gasp extra-time win over Sweden. Should they be feared? All roads lead to Rome for Saturday’s quarter-final tie…

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