Graham Ruthven: Raheem Sterling looks liberated in an England shirt, finally

After Sterling grabbed an impressive brace in Seville, Graham Ruthven feels England’s brightest young star has been right under their noses all along…

David De Gea didn’t even dive. So emphatic was the finish, smashed high into the top corner of the net, there was no reaction from the supposed best goalkeeper in the world.

It would have been futile. The damage had been done and the response from Raheem Sterling, a player frequently maligned for his lack of finishing instinct, had been served.

Of course, a lack of finishing instinct is just one of the many things Sterling is targeted for.

Barely a week goes by, particularly if it’s an international week, without the Manchester City winger making headlines for a tattoo, or for his perceived lack of commitment, or for buying a new expensive car, or for buying a new not-so-expensive car.

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His performances for England at the World Cup, though, as well as the display turned in against Spain in Monday’s away win over Spain in the UEFA Nations League, have made a mockery of those who seem so determined to knock down the 23-year-old.

Against elite opposition, Sterling has proven himself as more than worthy.

These are exciting times for the England team. Not since the 1990s has there been such widespread enthusiasm for the Three Lions.

Of course, this was sparked by England’s unexpected run to the semi-finals of the World Cup over the summer, but Monday night’s win in Seville demonstrated that there is much more to Gareth Southgate’s revolution.

There was not one player over the age of 25 involved for England against Spain, with teenager Jadon Sancho even coming off the bench for a cameo in the second half.

The Borussia Dortmund winger, along with Manchester City playmaker Phil Foden, is considered the vanguard of England’s next generation which Southgate is keen to induct into the national team set up as quickly as he can.

Even beyond these two, there is a whole host of youngsters all the way through the youth ranks, with England world champions at under-20, under-19 and under-17 level in 2017.

But, while the excitement over these wonderkids is understandable, particularly in the case of Foden and Sancho, we mustn’t look past England’s most exciting prospect – Sterling.

So prominent has the winger been since a young age, breaking into the Liverpool first team as a teenager, it’s often forgotten that Sterling is still only 23.

He is a Premier League champion and proven at the elite level of the sport, and yet he remains too young to hire a car abroad. But more exciting than that, Sterling can still get better.

Pep Guardiola has made this point more than once. He has claimed that Manchester City “count” on the winger, with the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss reportedly taking contract talks with Sterling into his own hands in order to get a deal over the line.

Wait any longer and Real Madrid, long-time admirers of Sterling, could get themselves a bargain. Even at £100 million, the latest mooted fee, the 23-year-old would be a shrewd signing.

It’s true that Sterling could serve to refine certain aspects to his game. That’s why Guardiola has set the winger a goals target for the season, imploring him to add more of a cutting edge to his final third play.

But given how Sterling’s game has developed to date, there’s no reason to doubt he won’t continue to get better and better.

Sterling has come to define the England team under Southgate. He was a talent who seemed burdened by the toxic environment that surrounded the national team for years, generations even.

That toxicity has since been lifted and Sterling is just one of the players who has been liberated.

Would Sterling have produced the sort of performance he pulled off against Spain under Sam Allardyce or Roy Hodgson?

Out of seemingly nowhere, England have become the most exciting, young team in international football over the past year or so. From front to back, they boast talent of great promise.

The natural urgency is to always look to the future, to the next big thing.

But in England’s case, the next big thing is closer than many might realise. It’s Sterling.

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