Gareth Southgate hails importance of Raheem Sterling after England winner

Raheem Sterling is always ready to step up for England.

Not just in scoring what proved to be the decisive injury-time penalty, but in chasing down a victory in the last 20 minutes, when a win appeared to be slipping away from ­England.

Sterling, 25, is firmly ­established as the Three Lions’ most important player, the one who delivers in big games and now thrives in the shirt which used to be an intimidating ­factor.

The Manchester City forward has come so far since he was riddled with self doubt at Euro 2016, and has stepped up to world-class level in the past three years.

His late penalty was his 11th goal for England in 12 games.

Manager Gareth Southgate praised Sterling for his ­“exceptional” contribution, ­especially when the game was crying out for a match winner, after Kyle Walker was sent off to leave England down to 10 men.

Southgate said: “I can’t speak highly enough of him really. It would have been very easy to have another few days on the beach, not report in, get himself right for his club at the ­beginning of the season.

“His mentality the whole week has been exceptional. Desperate to be here, desperate to play, desperate to stay on.

“I thought he carried the fight when we went down to 10 men and he took the ­responsibility of the penalty. His desire to win and succeed is exceptional.”

In any other season, Sterling would have been player of the year, as he got 35 goals in all competitions for club and country. But he still stood out, even in a season when City were second best.

“I thought, with Kevin De Bruyne, he was the outstanding player in the Champions League game where they went out, and he’s just been ­relentless,” said Southgate.

“His hunger to score, his ­hunger to win things, his ­hunger to drive himself – you ­really can’t underestimate it.

“It has a massive impact on everybody around him and ­really has taken his game to ­another level.”

It is easy to forget that this was England’s first game in 10 months. The players are still in pre-season and looked rusty, plus there were no fans or crowd to inspire any sort of ­atmosphere.

Joe Gomez did well in defence, James Ward-Prowse was busy in midfield, and Phil Foden showed signs of promise, while Harry Kane looked short of fitness.

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But the game changer was Walker’s second yellow card for a mistimed sliding tackle on Arnor Traustason. It was a rash moment of ­madness.

England could have easily let the game drift with 10 men. But Sterling came into his own and coolly slotted home what looked like a harsh ­penalty for 89th-minute handball against Sverrir Ingason.

But it looked like England had blown it when Gomez conceded another clumsy penalty, only for Birkir Bjarnason to slash the ball over the crossbar.

Thankfully for the Three Lions, Sterling stepped up and showed that they do not need to just rely on Kane. Incredibly, it was only the third time ­England have won a competitive game in the last three years when Kane has not scored.

Southgate added: “Harry is a supreme goalscorer and is ­critical to the way we play. Equally, we have some tremendous threats, which will be clear as the next few months develop, with Raheem in particular.

“Obviously, we’ve spoken about Jadon Sancho, Mason Greenwood coming though, and Marcus Rashford, of course.

“Phil Foden had a really good debut in really difficult ­circumstances, it’s ­really ­difficult to play in those areas, and Mason Mount will score goals as well.

“The nice thing is that we won’t be leaning just on Harry and I think games like the win in Spain show that goals can come from elsewhere.

“He’s still a critical part of what we do though.”

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