RAHEEM STERLING lit up Wembley last night after coming off the bench and energising England with his pace and trickery. The Liverpool star is a “springer,” a player who has rocketed to prominence during a tremendous season for his club and one who looks as though he has what it takes to do well on the biggest stage of all, the World Cup.
Sterling and his Liverpool team-mates Daniel Sturridge – he looks a certain starter against Italy on June 14 – and Jordan Henderson, plus Everton’s Ross Barkley, are fast-emerging young talents who make me feel much happier about our prospects in Brazil than I did six months ago. I don’t for a moment underestimate what Danny Welbeck brings to the team with his height and athleticism, but I do feel that Sterling is a growing threat to the Manchester United forward. He did enough in his cameo appearance to suggest to Roy Hodgson that he will be more than a bit-part player in Brazil.
My big hope is that Wayne Rooney, who I would give only a B rating for his performance, finally has a good World Cup. I know Wayne hasn’t had the best of times these past two seasons, probably suffering from Manchester United’s decline in the last campaign, and people such as his former colleague Paul Scholes and my ex-Manchester City team-mate Mike Channon have even questioned his right to an automatic place in the England team.
Those guys are more than entitled to their opinion. However, I maintain that Rooney remains one of our few class acts and that he must be a starter, motivated as I think he is by the knowledge that his World Cup track record is disappointing. He has had a marvellous career, starting at Everton and burgeoning at United. But he hasn’t quite made the step up to international superstar. At 29, he should be at the peak of his powers and I’m sure he is determined to do himself and England proud this time. We need a Wayne Rooney at his best if we are to get through the group stage and make an impact on the tournament.
Italy, Uruguay – and Costa Rica – will provide stiffer opposition that Peru did last night. The injury in training to Luis Suarez and subsequent knee operation – ironical considering he spent so much time this Premier League season rolling around, beating the turf, while not missing any matches – could prove a boost for England. Uruguay say he’ll be fit, but it’s a fact that anaesthetic takes a a few weeks to completely exit the system and, while Suarez may well face England, it could be that he won’t be 100 per cent.
Overall, I think Hodgson will be happy with his players’ display. Goalkeeper Joe Hart is looking back to his best form and Jack Wilshere came off the bench and proved his fitness. My biggest concerns are that either of the centre-backs, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill, get injured for I don’t think Chris Smalling is of international standard. And it is very important that skipper Steven Gerrard, who turned 34 yesterday, is available at all times. I think Hodgson’s ideal scenario for the first match would be 2-0 up with half an hour to go and get him off. Even better, England win the first two matches to qualify and Gerrard is rested for the final game!