Roy Hodgson is set to recall Raheem Sterling to his starting lineup against Iceland as England attempt to secure a first victory overseas in the knockout phase of a European Championship.
The winger is expected to replace Adam Lallana on the left side of an attacking three, with Harry Kane the central forward and Daniel Sturridge operating nominally off the right. Dele Alli and the captain, Wayne Rooney, will return to central midfield, with the Tottenham Hotspur full-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker also restored meaning, for the second game in succession, Hodgson will make six changes to his starting lineup.
Sterling, such a key performer for Hodgson at the 2014 World Cup, started the team’s first two Group B fixtures and was impressive for periods against Russia in the opening match in Marseille. Yet his rather fitful display against Wales in Lens prompted derision from the stands as the teams left the pitch at half-time, and he was replaced at the interval, as was Kane.
The Manchester City player did not feature in the goalless stalemate with Slovakia which left the English runners-up in the group. So ferocious had the criticism been on social media – which the 21-year-old is understood to monitor – and from the stands that concern had been expressed among the England coaching staff that the player’s confidence may have been seriously affected.
Yet, after a morale-boosting phone-call from his new club manager, Pep Guardiola, who reassured him over his future at the Etihad Stadium, Sterling has impressed sufficiently in training for Hodgson to contemplate a recall in a fixture that could effectively determine the manager’s future.
The decision to make six alterations raised eyebrows before the Slovakia draw but, with the players apparently refreshed, the hope is this selection will be better geared towards dismantling stubborn opponents. England anticipate another exercise in attack versus defence against Iceland, a nation enjoying their first appearance at a major finals and one of the surprise packages of this tournament, with Sterling’s ability to dribble at pace and provide natural width potentially key.
For all Lallana’s clever approach play Sterling could inject more slippery pace to this side, if on form. “From what I’ve seen, his state of mind is fine,” Rooney said. “He’s been normal around the camp and, on the training pitch, he’s been fantastic, sharp, taking players on, scoring goals. There’s no issue with Raheem at all. His attitude isn’t questioned. He stays behind after training doing what he does normally, and he’s a huge asset to us as a team. He’s a fantastic player and one who can turn the game in a split-second.”
England have not won a knockout fixture in a decade and Hodgson goes into this game well aware elimination by Iceland would surely wreck any chances of being offered a contract extension beyond the tournament. The outgoing chairman of the Football Association, Greg Dyke, has suggested the only way of the manager guaranteeing to be kept on to the 2018 World Cup finals would be to reach the semi-finals in France.
“The day you stop concerning yourself, worrying about it, thinking about it, that’s the day when you’ve lost the interest in the work,” Hodgson said when asked whether the implications of failure in Nice might play on his mind. “I suppose the simple answer to the question is no, I can’t divorce myself in that way. But as you get older, with more experience, you do force yourself to worry only about the things you can change. The things you can do to make certain that, when you look in the mirror, you can say: ‘What else could I have done?’”
“Did we prepare well enough? Was the training right? Have I chosen the right team? When you talk about choosing the right team, that’s got to be the team that, in your opinion, can win the game. That’s what we’ve done every game so far.
“If you think you’ve done that, that gives you not only comfort but it means you don’t agonise any more because you’ve handed the game over to the people who matter: the players. Players win matches, not managers and coaches.”