Sterling shows he can be sparkling creative lynchpin for club and country
Raheem Sterling hasn't had the easiest of times in an England shirt, but the Manchester City winger showed how much he has improved under Pep Guardiola and how it can benefit the national team in the victory over Lithuania.
In Sunday's 2-0 win, England were struggling to break down a defensive and well-organised Lithuania when Sterling displayed his confidence and skill to create the opener and change the course of the World Cup qualifier.
It was simple enough -- Sterling jinked past Egidijus Vaitkunas, darted into the box and pulled the ball back for Jermain Defoe to easily score. But it was a moment of individuality that England had desperately been lacking for the previous 20 minutes.
Gareth Southgate's side is not overflowing with creativity and against Lithuania, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Dele Alli and Adam Lallana worked hard but kept their game relatively simple; all three failed to show throughout the 90 minutes a moment that could change the game.
While it was a long way from being Sterling's best performance of the season, as he struggled through the pain of a back injury, that moment was enough to show why he should be a big part of his country's future, just as he has proven for his club.
"We don't have a lot of players in the country who can beat people in one-versus-one situations," said Southgate in a news conference after the game. "[Sterling is] explosive in those tight areas and he's going to get better and better."
Just last summer, England showed how much they were missing that spark of creativity when they were bundled out of the Euro 2016, scoring just four goals in four games in a miserable tournament. A win against Russia or Slovakia would have seen them top the group, but they were held to lacklustre draws by both and by the time they were beaten by Iceland in the round of 16, England were short of any imagination.
By then, Sterling was drained of confidence and had become public enemy No. 1 in England, with some fans starting up an online petition to get him sent home from France.
Guardiola sent Sterling a text message during the tournament to assure him that he has a big future at the Etihad and since then, the coach has set about successfully rebuilding the winger's belief that he is one of the club's key men for the future.
Sterling has responded and his ability to change matches has been put on display time and again for City this season. In the past three months alone he has made a decisive impact in five matches with the scores level. He scored a brilliant individual winner in the 2-1 victory over Arsenal in December and two weeks later won a penalty against Hull City with a thrusting run that led to 71st-minute opener in a 3-0 win.
In January and February, Sterling scored the opening goal in the FA Cup win over Crystal Palace, the Premier League victory at Bournemouth and the 5-3 Champions League epic with Monaco. And in the second leg, with City heading out on the away-goal rule, Sterling helped to put his team back ahead in the tie when his shot led to Leroy Sane's goal, only for the Ligue 1 leaders to snatch another goal in the 77th minute.
The 22-year-old is instrumental to Guardiola's attacking philosophy. With Sane on the left flank, City stretch the pitch as wide as possible. The wingers try to isolate full-backs -- knowing they can beat opponents with their pace or skill -- and offer a goal threat by cutting inside.
In total, Sterling has directly contributed to 17 goals this season -- scoring nine and adding another eight assists -- and City haven't won any of the last seven games in which he's been missing. Indeed, in the last two matches when Sterling has been rested -- Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup and Stoke City in the Premier League -- Guardiola's team have not scored, the only two times it has happened this year.
City will be hoping that Sterling's back injury, which forced him off in the win over Lithuania, is not too serious, particularly with crucial games at Arsenal and Chelsea coming up in the space of four days. The forward has become vital for City and could be on the same track for England.
Jonathan is ESPN FC's Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.