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Raheem Sterling ready to
It underlined the lightness that pervades the England camp nowadays when, answering a question about an international goal drought that has stretched two and a half years, Raheem Sterling felt able to aim a mild tease towards his manager. “I think it is because the gaffer takes me off early,” he joked and Gareth Southgate, sitting a few feet to his left, was as happy to laugh as anybody else. Sterling had fancied his chances of rediscovering his touch in the latter stages of Friday’s win against the Netherlands; his 70th‑minute withdrawal put paid to that, although Southgate had made a point of praising his performance as he left the Johan Cruyff Arena pitch.
How far it already feels from last September, when Sterling was replaced at half-time in Malta and Southgate admitted the move was made “for the good of the team”. That was not even one of the darkest days in an England shirt for Sterling, who has been a lightning rod for some outrageous instances of abuse, but a coruscating season with Manchester City has clearly had an effect and it was a relaxed, good-humoured figure who spoke at Tottenham’s training ground on Monday.
“At the end of the day I should be scoring a lot more for England and I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he continued of a run that stretches back 19 appearances for the
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national team, since a 2-0 win over Estonia at Wembley. “I’ve done that at my club. I wasn’t scoring a lot of goals there as well but made the turnaround and started scoring. Same with England – I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well and score more. And it will be a matter of time.”
Clear chances to lighten that load were hard to come by on Friday although Sterling, paired with Marcus Rashford in a fluid attacking pair, bubbled with confidence. He is likely to start up front against Italy
and it was hard to square the evident enthusiasm he has for the task in hand with some of the perceptions that have clouded both him and the England collective.
“To have fun, to enjoy the football and
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enjoy the moment,” was his response when asked about his aims for the World Cup. “This is stuff you used to see on TV as a little kid and you get the opportunity to be here now at 23. Just enjoy it. We
know what we can do. It’s just having that support and that backing – you know, feeling loved.
“I feel sometimes a bit too much negativity. I would love to hear some positive notes going in, just to make the boys know everyone’s behind them.”
He has felt that cynicism at club level, too, and admitted that during a “rough” first year at Manchester City he “didn’t think I was being spoken about in a fair manner, didn’t think I was being treated right”.
It was a matter of sitting down and working out how to deal with the noise; that he has done so in the form of a 20-goal season and nailed-on Premier League winner’s medal bodes well for the chances of discovering similar consistency with England and Southgate spoke approvingly of the way he has refined his thought processes about the game under Pep Guardiola.
“You can see the confidence in him,” Southgate said. “With the biggest teams [Guardiola] has managed to play in a different way and give the players that belief and detail in how they play. Then it’s down to the players as well to take that on board.
“That’s where Raheem has to take credit because, if a player isn’t willing to go with that, learn and have the mind-set and determination to improve, then those messages are wasted. You can see the positions he’s taking up, his belief in front of goal – he’s scored more goals this week in training than I’ve ever seen.
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