World Cup 2018: Raheem Sterling shows exactly why he’s become a player you simply have to make an exception for

So then, Raheem Sterling. Time for a nice quiet afternoon, right?

After a week of unwanted seminars on body-art semiotics and altogether more justified concerns about his time-keeping, it was a good moment to step out of the spotlight and… oh, hang on. He’s starting? This isn’t in the guidebook, Gareth. Are we definitely doing this? 

We were, and good thing too. For what better way to derail a prevailing narrative than by simply ignoring it, refusing to be sucked into its orbit?

Sterling huffed, puffed and missed chances here. And in a moment that will doubtless strike a certain subsection of columnists and fans as a symptom of society’s deep-set moral decay, Sterling tumbled theatrically in the vague vicinity of a challenge, earning a booking.    

He was also, at least until Nigeria began to arm-wrestle momentum away from England in the second half, the game’s single most compelling attacking force, soap-slippery and ever willing to probe at the Super Eagles’ weak spots. 

In the opening exchanges especially he played as if in some kind of martyrs’ pact with Dele Alli, whose every touch was roundly booed by the away fans, fuelled by some pantomime grudge or other. Twice they combined in the opening 15 minutes, Sterling seeing one shot charged down and another dribble harmlessly wide after a touchless pirouette so delicious they should serve it to the suits at Club Wembley.

Two further raids down the left further spooked Nigeria, and while the 23-year-old probably ought to have done better after being picked out by Alli again, 15 yards out, he quickly shook off the dust to set up Kane for England’s second. 

2-0, game over (although almost not, as it turned out), scapegoat thriving… Southgate, again rocking the in-this-wedding-for-the-long-haul look, would have been forgiven a quiet chuckle.

London holds a particular charm on days like this, its diaspora heart thrumming agreeably to the beat of low-stakes expectation. This, really, is the England team’s happy place: the sun-kissed prelude, the tournament summer before the stark business of the tournament itself. Jamaica 2006, Mexico 2010, Peru 2014… you can’t take those memories away from us.

Here, a bit of extra visual pizzazz was thrown into the mix by those Nigeria shirts, the fabric darlings of the season, ushering us towards a bright neon zig-zag future. In truth, they weren’t actually that numerous – supply, meet demand – but the visiting players still cut dashing figures in the afternoon glare. 

Well, until kick-off anyway. After which, for 45 minutes at least, Nigeria proved themselves to be thoroughly accommodating visitors, those cascading chevrons suddenly recast as arrows pointing in the direction of the wide-open spaces down their flanks. Kieran Trippier, Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young all accepted the invitation as England threatened to run riot.

Yet it was Sterling, moving between the lines with that jittery gait, who really threatened to drag the game out of Nigeria’s reach, tugging them out of shape and tickling them.

“Maybe 10 days ago, because of not turning up on time,” Southgate had said when asked if he had thought of leaving Sterling out of the side. “I had a good discussion with him this week, and my initial instinct is that is what is right for the whole team. But the week has gone on, he has come under fire and it is important for me to protect and support him.” 

That stands out as an admirable slice of pastoral care in a game that so often eats its young – and one that the player no doubt appreciated. It helps, of course, that Sterling is now such a multi-faceted attacking force, a real source of star power within Southgate’s slow-build empire.

So a case of greatness trumping lateness? There is still some way to go on that front, but one thing is clear: Sterling has become the sort of player you’d happily go out of your way to make an exception for.

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