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I’ll admit Raheem Sterling’s form at the European Championship has surprised me.
After his season for Manchester City, I could totally understand why a lot of people would not have had Raheem in their England XI.
But this is what the top players are about: they revel in proving people wrong and put their best foot forward when it matters.
Raheem’s potential at Liverpool was obvious. He was a raw, exciting player, but under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage at City he has grown more tactically aware. You can see it in his positional play and his ability to hurt the opposition.
As a former defender, he is a big man’s nightmare. For a big centre-half, his low centre of gravity, his quick changes of direction, his pace are a nightmare to defend against.
He doesn’t stop moving. Even when he’s just given the ball, he doesn’t stand still. He immediately makes another move. That’s one of the reasons I love watching him but would’ve hated playing against him.
When we were preparing to face Sterling at Tottenham last season, we knew it was very difficult to shut him down completely.
You try to limit his out-ball, you double up at times. For a player like Sterling, who loves to get in behind, it’s not just a job for the full-back. You have to make sure the whole defence knows what kind of runs he enjoys making.
Sometimes, you just have to try to hold him for as long as possible.
Mental strength, bouncing back from adversity separates great players from the good.
Whether that’s bad form, injuries or the treatment Raheem has had, with people doubting him and people talking about him and his family without knowing them, great players carry on. They develop a steely mentality. Raheem has that.
One of the biggest criticisms of his game has obviously been his goal-scoring, but look at his improvement now.
In the last few years, he has been getting himself into better positions in the box and he scores a lot of chances similar to the ones he has taken at the Euros.
His record of 15 goals in the last 20 internationals is phenomenal, especially for a winger. He has repaid Gareth’s faith in him.
There’s a lot of talk about the expectation on England and the danger of underestimating Ukraine, particularly after beating Germany, but I actually don’t think tomorrow is a new situation.
England have been talked about as potential winners from the start of the tournament.
I hope the Scotland game was a reminder that we can’t take a result for granted, though.
Looking back, I think the players just expected it to happen against Scotland and that result could give them the urgency needed in Rome and remind them that they cannot take their foot off the gas or take the game lightly.