England v Slovenia: '˜Tough lad' Sterling backed to shine at long last
His output in a Three Lions shirt has never been so prolific, with the last of his two international strikes coming against Estonia two years ago.
In last month’s World Cup qualifying double header, Sterling was taken off at half-time in Malta and restricted to a seven-minute cameo against Slovakia, but Dele Alli’s suspension should mean a swift return to the starting XI against Slovenia tonight.
And a player who once branded himself “the hated one” – due to his difficult relationship with sections of the fan-base – has impressed his manager with a resilient attitude. “I think Raheem is a tough lad,” said Southgate.
“That’s one of the attributes I really like about him. He bounces back from disappointments and he goes again.
“He is ready, I can see he is ready for the game and looking forward to it. He is in a good place with his club, he is working with a good coach there and we have huge belief in him as well.”
Having made his senior debut for Liverpool five-and-a-half years ago, with his England bow following within a matter of months, Sterling has plenty of experience under his belt – but Southgate prefers to focus on his youth and the room for growth which still remains.
“He’s a ‘94 birthday, so 23 this year. He’s not old at all,” added the former Middlesbrough boss.
“But he’s at a moment where, like a lot of these guys, the next few years are very important to establish themselves as top players. Their experiences at their clubs will only benefit them, training with top players and playing in the Champions League. The opportunities to improve are always there. He recognises that.
“We want the crowd to be excited with what they’re watching and he’s a player who can do that: he can beat people; his goalscoring record is improving, which is important; and he works hard for the team, chasing back and tackling.
“He’s not just a winger.
“Raheem is in a really good moment, an exciting player.”