Sterling's promise of youth appeals
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Roy Hodgson is not readily rushed towards the flash of the new. "I certainly am not trying in any way to play down the fact the future looks quite bright and there are some very, very interesting times ahead for us, I'm sure. At this World Cup we also need our experienced players to help the younger ones along," England's coach said on Tuesday, in trying to dampen down typical English excitement at a crop of young players who might just be capable of something special.
Danny Welbeck is a player Hodgson has never been slow to show appreciation of, even if he rarely promises the spectacular. At 23, he has become a mainstay, counting as an experienced performer. The Manchester United man is a throwback in that he is usually more effective for country than club. Hodgson has always preferred those who follow his careful instructions to the letter.
Welbeck's injury problem -- suggested by Wayne Rooney to be nothing too serious on Wednesday -- may prove untimely for a player who has never yet let his nation down, but he does not offer the verve and excitement that Raheem Sterling can.
Much of the rest of the country prefers its players to be bright and shiny. Rooney's breakthrough a decade ago at Euro 2004 was a thrilling rush for those English fans who had travelled to Portugal. They have enjoyed nothing like it since. Rooney's England career is statistically successful, but he has never become what he was expected to be. It seemed as if England had a world-beater, but England have singularly failed to conquer anywhere of note. The time has arrived to look for other options. Rooney himself is happy to throw credit towards the next generation, and has adopted a fatherly stance to his nascent colleagues.
"The younger players are bringing a lot of energy and excitement," said Rooney on Wednesday after a training session at England's camp at the Urcan military base in Rio de Janeiro. "This is the best England squad I have played with."
While there may be questions against that judgement on the grounds of a defensive unit that does not match the excellence of the Ferdinand-Terry-Campbell-Neville-Cole group that Rooney first played with, his excitement clearly lies in an attacking unit that brims with freshness.
With hopes of success in Brazil decidedly low, a sliver of brighter futures will suffice for most England fans. Sterling is accompanied by colleagues who can make a similar breakthrough in Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw and a heartening late developer in 26-year-old Adam Lallana, but the Liverpool teenager is surely in place to make the greater impact.
The hints from England's closed-door training sessions are that Sterling might be offered the chance to feature in the No. 10 position that he starred in during Liverpool's surge towards a Premier League title they narrowly missed out on. The teenager supplied the electricity in Brendan Rodgers' team's run of 11 winning matches in a row, and with his clubmates dominating the make-up of Hodgson's projected selection, Sterling will have the comfort of friendly faces around him.
Training-ground sessions and the three friendly games that preceded England's arrival in Rio have heavily featured a rotation of England's front players, a refreshing adaptation from the 4-4-2 that Hodgson has relied on in a coaching career that has lasted four decades. Even Daniel Sturridge, the nominal No. 9, will be expected to man the flanks when the need arises. His athleticism allows him to do so. In the possible absence of Welbeck, either Lallana or James Milner might be expected to offer solidity to the rotating party.
Sterling, used to the adaptability that Rodgers preaches at Liverpool, is an ideal fit for such an approach. On the evidence of the recent matches against Peru, Ecuador and Honduras, Rooney is the player who finds it most difficult to adapt to a flexible approach.
And then there is the searing pace with which Sterling destroyed so many of Liverpool's opponents. Were England to receive moments like those he delivered against Arsenal and Manchester City, in particular, an Italian defence hardly blessed with pace could find itself in reverse.
Sterling is not lacking in vision, but the moments when he is swapped into a central position will undoubtedly see him asked to use that unmatchable pace to run at the heart of the Azzurri. With Saturday's match in Manaus expected to be played at snail's pace under a beating sun in ruinously humid conditions, such sprints can prove decisive. Or the game might curdle into the stalemate it is widely expected to be; a goalless draw is the lowest-priced scoreline on UK betting exchanges.
The Liverpool youngster's sending-off against Ecuador prevented him playing against Honduras this past Saturday, which Hodgson openly lamented. Uncharacteristic of a coach who is hardly known for reaching for superlatives, Hodgson described Sterling as "breathtaking" and "unstoppable" after England's last training session in Miami. Any lingering doubts about Welbeck may just have let Sterling in.
His selection would be popular for a nation that, in the absence of ambition, wants to be thrilled again by the promise of youth.