Euro 2020: Raheem Sterling earns place as England legend after starring role in run to final


Looking back on the course of Raheem Sterling’s career, perhaps it has always been leading inexorably toward this moment, this summer, when the young man who has had the eyes of the English nation on him for so long earned his place in the pantheon of this country’s national obsession.

If that feels like an overstatement it should not. Anyway if any moment demands a degree of giddiness it is the one where England are in the final of a major tournament for the first time in the lifetime of most of the country’s population. Sterling has not been alone in taking England to the final of Euro 2020 but it is hard to imagine they would be there without him. His goals, his runs and the belief in the qualities of himself and his team that emanates from him whenever the ball is at his feet have set the tone for this most remarkable of summers. 

The boy who grew up in the shadows of Wembley now seems to bestride it like a giant whenever he takes to the pitch. In the early exchanges against Denmark he was somehow winning the odd header against Andreas Christensen or Simon Kjaer despite giving up more than five inches to the tallest of them. Where once his spells in possession have brought murmurs of concern or frustration from a skeptical crowd from the moment the ball first came to Sterling there was a pause of belief. 

Give him the ball and he would ask questions of the Danish defense. Leave him unoccupied for just a moment and he would dart into the space from which to get a shooting opportunity. In the past, and even early on tonight, he has infuriated many for what is seen as a failure to convert presentable opportunities. Why did he not put the ball either side of Kasper Schmeichel moments before he forced the equalizer with his pressure on Simon Kjaer?

Yet there is something of a misunderstanding there in the value of simply getting to shooting positions on such a consistent basis, on finding that gap in the defense that will allow you to reach a Harry Kane cross or a Bukayo Saka cut back. Even when he does not, the sheer pressure he puts on defenders is enough to force them into mistakes or to get their technique all askew as they dive at balls in a forlorn attempt to stop Sterling getting there.

Throughout this tournament he seems to have had a knack for finding the spots where he can consistently impact the game. Against Croatia he dropped deep far more often than he might for Manchester City, demanding the ball so he could turn and run at an ailing, aging defense. It was more traditional Sterling in the victory over the Czech Republic, darting into the space between full back and center back with runs that were well-timed more often than not.

At Wembley tonight it soon became apparent where the spaces would be, both as a creator and scorer Sterling exploited them with ruthless efficiency. With Joakim Maehle committed to pushing forward Jannick Vestergaard, hardly the sort of mobile central defender who is at ease being dragged out wide, found himself unable to cope with the stretching runs of Saka, particularly when Kane took up a berth on the Danish left as well. From his position across the pitch, Sterling attacked the danger area with speed and precision.

It took everything Denmark had to stop him twice in the space of a few moments after Mikkel Damsgaard’s opener, first a strong Kasper Schmeichel save from a shot that was a little too close to him followed by the dive from Kjaer that turned a Sterling goal into this tournament’s 11th own goal.

Sterling’s eye for an opportunity is such in that equalizer that he is in place for a second, if not more, awaiting Saka’s cut back before the delivery comes. No Danish defender has really clocked the danger. For Sterling the opportunity is blindingly obvious.

Saka’s withdrawal midway through the second half to introduce the guile of Jack Grealish asked something different of Sterling on the right flank and for a while it looked as though he was fading from the contest. But as Maehle tired that seam down the left channel opened up — Kane nearly struck a fine shot beyond Schmeichel from that angle early into extra time — and the Manchester City forward drove into it. It was from there that the penalty would come.

As for whether or not it was a foul, one can absolutely see why Danish supporters feel aggrieved and why their English counterparts could not care less. What contact there was was at best minimal but as Sterling himself noted after the game “I went into the box, he stuck his right leg out, and he touched my leg so it was a penalty,” He demanded that Maehle and Mathias Jensen commit themselves. From there they were in the lap of the gods.

Sterling would not stop there. As others seemed happy to run the ball into the corner late on he was prepared to charge at the Danish defense. One of this game’s last acts saw him draw yet another brilliant save from Schmeichel, denying him the fourth goal of this tournament he so thoroughly deserved.

There will be no time for him to reflect on the joy he has brought to the English nation. He is determined to make it better still against Italy on Sunday. “It is another step in the right direction,” he said after the game. “Once we stepped into the dressing room, that is it, over, and we focus on the weekend. Step by step, that’s how we do it.”

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That should not stop others from taking a moment to consider the totality of Sterling’s tournament and his England career. There is a reason why, in spite of the galaxy of potent young stars Gareth Southgate has in his squad, it is Sterling, suddenly the veteran with 66 caps to his name when it seems that it was only yesterday Roy Hodgson was unleashing him on the World Cup stage in Brazil, he trusts above all others. Whether on the scoresheet or otherwise he delivers for this team. Three years ago that meant running the hard yards to stretch defenses and open up space for Kane, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard. This time, with England’s No. 9 having needed time to ease his way into the tournament, Sterling has born the goalscoring responsibility with ease.

It should be said again that he has not been alone. Almost every player in this squad has had moments where they have stood out above their teammates: Declan Rice on a yellow card against Germany, Jadon Sancho against Croatia, Kalvin Phillips in those tense early exchanges against Croatia (and indeed as the game wore on tonight — years under Marcelo Bielsa have given him an engine you suspect could keep running right the way through to next winter’s World Cup). Whilst others have been consistently good with moments of excellence Sterling is the reverse, a bastion of brilliance that has rarely faltered.

He will doubtless believe that his place among the pantheon of England greats will only be secured with victory against Italy on Sunday. And yet, whatever happens at Wembley in a few days’ time, it does not seem premature to place among the highest echelon of this national team’s great names the best player of the side that has ended the half century wait for a major tournament final.





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