It was the 120th minute of a tough semifinal fixture. England had managed to take the lead through a Harry Kane goal and were focused on seeing out the match. So, when the ball fell to Raheem Sterling near the Denmark box, he could have been forgiven for running straight to the corner flag and trying to run the clock down. Instead, he chose to dribble past the Danish centre-back and got a shot off. It was saved and England got a corner. The final whistle blew within a minute.
That last dribble in the semifinal was also Sterling's 29th at Euro 2020. He is top of that list and is second only to Kylian Mbappe in terms of dribbles per game. For England, the attacking thrust that Sterling's dribbles have provided are unmatched. Bukayo Saka is a distant second with 15 dribbles; although Saka edges Sterling by 0.17 in terms of dribbles per game.
But, Sterling has been a far greater direct threat to the opposition's goal than Saka. Of England's 10 goals, Sterling has had a hand in seven. He scored the first three and assisted Harry Kane's opener against Ukraine in the quarterfinal. He then played a delightful backheel pass to the consistently superb Luke Shaw to cross for Kane's second and England's third goal of the match.
In the semifinal, he was involved in both goals. After a superb through ball by Kane to Saka, Sterling made a perfectly timed run into the centre for Saka to cross to. As he stood free, ready to tap in into an open net, Denmark captain Simon Kjaer had no choice but to make a last-ditch tackle which resulted in an own-goal. In the 102nd minute, his slaloming run won England a penalty; Kane scored the winner from the rebound of his saved penalty.
But, much like his performances in the other England matches, Sterling's brilliance was quickly forgotten amid the post-match debates about the contentious penalty. There is no arguing that it was a soft penalty. But, does that automatically mean that it was not a penalty? It would have been understandable if the penalty was not given; the contact was light. However, there was not enough evidence for VAR to overturn it, as there was contact which hampered Sterling's progress.
Whether he went down too easily or not, only Sterling will know for sure. He has come out and said that it was a clear penalty. However, there is widespread criticism of Sterling, including in England. For Denmark, it was a desperately unlucky way to go out of the tournament. And the legions of neutral fans who got behind the Danes after their thrilling run to the semifinal, are not likely to forgive Sterling.
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But, Sterling has shown remarkable character throughout his career. For instance, in December 2017, he played hours after he was attacked by a racist hooligan outside his club Manchester City's training ground. Therefore, unfavourable opinions of him are not likely to shake Sterling. A Jamaican immigrant, he has seen much in life and worked hard to get where he is now. His father was gunned down when he was just two. Within a couple of years, his mother, Nadine Clarke, moved to London with him. He signed for Queens Park Rangers when he was 10 and was subsequently scouted by the academies of London-based clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and Fulham. But Clarke, a former member of the Jamaican athletics team (Sterling credits her for his running style), reportedly encouraged him to move out of London to escape gang culture.
Liverpool beat Manchester City to his signature then. But, after Sterling had established himself as one of England's best players, City signed him in a deal worth £49 million (including add-ons), making him the most expensive English player of all time; a record that has been broken since then. After a good start to life in Manchester, Sterling had an underwhelming 2020-2021 season.
This resulted in calls for England manager Gareth Southgate to drop him in favour of the in-form Jack Grealish. While Grealish has justified the calls for his inclusion, Sterling, too, has justified his manager's faith in him. His pace and penetration is vital for the way Southgate's team plays and he has established a great partnership with Shaw. However, his performances have not been enough to silence his critics.
In England's opener against Croatia, he was man of the match and scored the winner. Out of England's eight shots, Sterling was involved in six. He took three of the shots, scoring once and blasting over twice, he played in Phil Foden to hit the post, played the pass before the cross from which Kane nearly scored and won the free-kick from which Kieran Trippier hit the wall. But, after the match, the focus was on Sterling's wastefulness and wild shots.
Similarly, against Germany, he scored the opener. He also gave away the ball leading to Germany's Thomas Mueller going one-on-one against Jordan Pickford in the English goal. Luckily for England, Mueller missed. After the match, Sterling's attacking contributions were forgotten and his goal, the result of a move that he started with a probing run, was played down as "just a tap in". The fact that he had given the ball away for Mueller's chance was remembered.
Against Ukraine and Denmark, Sterling's performances have "visibly" improved. This could be a result of Kane finding his scoring touch, thereby leaving Sterling free to express himself more. But, when his captain was struggling to score, it was Sterling who stepped up. Even in the 0-0 against Scotland, Sterling was in position to finish late on. Only some determined defending from Scott McTominay denied him.
It seems that Sterling is almost destined to be remembered only for his faults, real or imagined. But, as England plays in their first final in 55 years, Sterling has a chance to change this. Italy have been imperious for almost three years. The most obvious chinks in the Italian armour now are an ageing defence and the right-back position. Sterling is likely to get plenty of chances to dribble through. Should he produce a special moment in the final, no one would be able to deny him the credit that is due.