As Gareth Southgate said shortly before this friendly, he did indeed have doubts about selecting Raheem Sterling for this game. And understandably so when the young Manchester City player had reported late for World Cup duty.
But this week England’s manager felt the need to ‘protect him’ in the face of such intense media scrutiny and by Saturday evening at Wembley all appeared to be forgiven.
Ten days on from an incident that demanded Sterling apologise to the entire squad and he was back in the No 10 shirt he craves most, Southgate inviting him to excel as a foil to Harry Kane.
Raheem Sterling played for 73 minutes as England beat Nigeria at Wembley on Saturday night
England manager Gareth Southgate had admitted to having doubts about picking Sterling
‘I am looking forward to watching him play today,’ said Southgate in the same pre-match television interview, and early impressions suggested Sterling was certainly in the mood to repay his manager for his support.
His finishing could have been sharper. Indeed you could see why he has a tattoo of a gun on his right leg – his ‘shooting foot’ – and not on his left.
But he was bright, alert, keen not just to get on the ball but to make an impact. A flash of skill and he was unleashing one effort only to see it diverted wide by Leon Balogun. Moments later and Dele Alli had sent him clear to leave him with only Francis Uzoho to beat. He lifted his left-foot effort over the advancing Nigeria goalkeeper but the ball drifted wide of the far post. And then came a neat exchange of passes that ended with an invitation for Ashley Young to try his luck.
Nigeria, by then a goal down to Gary Cahill’s excellent header, had sufficient numbers in the six-yard box to see off the danger but they were struggling to contain the lightning-quick forward who has so excelled this season for the English champions.
Sterling seemed to be enjoying being part of an exciting attacking line-up. Sure, Nigeria’s apparent apathy in the first half made it easier for England’s forwards to express themselves.
But, with Alli and Jesse Lingard deployed in midfield ahead of Eric Dier, and Sterling operating up front with Kane, this was an ambitious line-up; one perhaps with Tunisia and Panama more in mind than Belgium.
Before the break Alli presented Sterling with another chance to strike but his shot, again off his left, flew over the crossbar.
Sterling did, however, provide Kane with the final ball prior to the captain doubling England’s lead, and could certainly reflect on the first half as a decent 45 minutes at the office.
But Soutgate’s decision to start Sterling was a wise one as the Manchester City star impressed
Sterling was involved in the move which saw England score their second goal before half time
Captain Harry Kane collected Sterling’s pass before firing a low shot into the net on 39 minutes
The same could not be said of Nigeria. Perhaps their players did not feel the need to impress their manager in a bid for a World Cup starting place but perform like this in Russia and they will struggle in a group also containing Argentina, Iceland and Croatia. Defend like this and Lionel Messi will tear them to pieces.
They were better after the interval, performing with rather more urgency and giving Jordan Pickford his first taste of what it is like to concede a goal as England keeper. Vital experience if nothing else.
At the opposite end Sterling remained central to the action, albeit for reasons he no doubt would have rather avoided. A booking for diving was fair enough, and something Southgate will not want to see in Russia.
What he wanted to see here was more of a test for his side and Nigeria were at least now making it a contest, applying some pressure on their hosts with a more physical, dynamic approach.
Southgate responded by replacing Lingard with the towering Ruben Loftus-Cheek and here, now, was a chance to see what assistance he could provide to Kane and Sterling.
He was quick to spark a decent move that saw Sterling link up the play first down the right flank and then, after Loftus-Cheek’s chipped cross had drifted beyond its target, down the left.
Italian referee Marco Guida gave Sterling a yellow card early in the second half at Wembley
Sterling was rightly booked for diving after going down without contact from the goalkeeper
But it came to nothing and it proved Sterling’s last involvement in this game, Southgate deciding to shake things up further by taking off his front pairing and sending on Danny Welbeck and Marcus Rashford.
On social media there were mutterings of frustration expressed towards Sterling, with calls for him to be hooked before he actually was.
At Wembley, however, the spectators were more supportive. He might have called himself the ‘hated one’ after the abuse he received from fans during Euro 2016 but here his ambition and endeavour was appreciated. Not to mention his assist.
Ultimately Sterling did enough to keep his place and give Southgate something other than tattoos and tardiness to talk about.
If the end product was a little lacking, the effort was not and Southgate would have noted the anxiety in Nigeria’s defensive ranks whenever Sterling was in possession.
So Southgate can consider it a situation well handled. He left Sterling in no doubt that he was unhappy with his failure to turn up on time, whatever the precise circumstances of his travel problems on his return from a break in Jamaica. And the conversation he had with him on a stroll around St George’s Park prompted the 23-year-old to say sorry to his fellow internationals.
But that represented the end of the matter for England’s manager and he picked Sterling not just in his favourite shirt but in his favourite position. Sterling just needs to adjust his sights and shoot and pass with a more accuracy.
Sterling, 23, shook hands with his England manager Southgate as he was substituted off
Sterling watched the final stages of the international friendly from the bench at Wembley
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.