World Cup 2018: Gareth Southgate backs 'resilient' Raheem Sterling

By Phil McNultyChief football writer in Moscow
England v Colombia
Venue: Spartak Stadium, Moscow Date: Tuesday, 3 July (19:00 BST)
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 live, live text commentary online, mobile, the BBC Sport app and Connected TV. Highlights online on full-time.

England manager Gareth Southgate says he is mystified by the debate over Raheem Sterling's position in the side as he returns to face Colombia in the World Cup last 16 meeting in Moscow.

Manchester City's 23-year-old forward was rested for the final Group G game against Belgium but will return on Tuesday as England attempt to win their first knockout game at a major tournament for 12 years.

Southgate is confident Sterling has the quality to make a vital contribution despite a record of just two goals in 40 England games - and none in his past 22.

"I have great belief in him, he has been a really important part of the team," said Southgate.

Raheem Sterling
Raheem Sterling has two goals in 40 appearances for England

"In the last five or six games, with the change of system, he has been key. His movement, his ability to run at teams from deep, his inter-changing of position with the other forward players is very important."

Sterling has not scored for England since he was on target against Estonia in October 2015, but Southgate added: "At times, I have wondered why there has been such a focus on his position in the team and not others but that's the way it has been.

"He's tough and resilient and he is a player who will be looking forward to this occasion immensely."

'Pointless looking any further than this game'

Southgate, meanwhile, insists he does not expect repeat of England's embarrassing exit from Euro 2016, when they lost to Iceland in the last 16.

The England manager and his back-up team have been working to prepare the players mentally.

He said: "I think we are always trying to psychologically prepare the team to get them in the right moment for every game, whether that might mean they need a push or they need calming down.

"That is the art of coaching and that is what our team of staff are there to do.

"What we sense in the group is an excitement, an understanding that it is pointless looking any further than this game and maybe it is trap we have fallen into in the past."

And recalling that humiliating defeat by Iceland in Nice, when England lost after taking an early lead through Wayne Rooney, Southgate said: "A few of these players were in the last championships in France.

"There was a fixture they felt was one they should have won. Then having gone behind after being ahead and probably feeling comfortable, they maybe realised some of that approach wasn't correct.

"I don't expect the same on Tuesday. In fairness it is a different sort of game. We know the quality of the opposition and we know we have got to be spot on to be able to beat them."

'Attack the tournament'

Southgate played down suggestions the World Cup is opening up for England with the elimination of Germany, Argentina and Spain.

"We have a very difficult opponent, a very good side who we respect," he added.

"We've got to concentrate on our football, playing in the style we have throughout the tournament, playing with the same mentality, and make sure we show the resilience and play with the freedom that we have up to this point."

Southgate added: "The thing I want more than anything else is the players to continue to attack the tournament as we have. That shouldn't change now we are in the knockout phase.

"If anything, we should feel freer. It is a game we are really looking forward to, the sort of match you want to be involved in. It is going to be a fantastic evening."

'Delph is buying his wife curries'

England midfielder Fabian Delph temporarily returned home from the World Cup at the end of last week as his wife is set to give birth to their third child.

However, Southgate said there was a chance he could be back in time for the Colombia match.

Fabian Delph
Fabian Delph played the full game when England lost 1-0 to Belgium in their final group game

"He might be with us. He is buying his wife curries and all sorts of things to try to aid the speed of the process," he added.

"I have said all along to the players that this is a big tournament but family is more important. I think it is very important, at times like this, that players who are family-orientated are supported by us.

"Fabian has been exceptional. We have been so fortunate to have a squad of players whose character and spirit have formed an incredible bond while we have been away and he has been fundamental to that.

"I can't speak highly enough of his character around the group."

Analysis - 'Judgement time in Moscow'

Gareth Southgate was the epitome of calm at his final media briefing - refusing to entertain the growing belief that the World Cup has suddenly opened up for his side.

Southgate was at pains to insist England's sole focus must be on Colombia, even reviving grim memories of the embarrassing last-16 defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016 as a warning to the price that could be paid for any failure in approach.

He presented a straight bat to any suggestion England have been presented with their greatest World Cup opportunity for years as holders Germany, Spain and Argentina have fallen by the wayside.

Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate will be taking charge of England for the 22nd time against Colombia

The message was clear - it is only Colombia on England's minds.

Southgate is adept at putting the noise surrounding a World Cup in perspective, insisting it was more more important for Fabian Delph to be with his pregnant wife than here with England's squad in Russia.

He has huge belief in an England team that still remains an unknown quantity when it comes to judging just how good they are. Southgate knows it is judgement time on Moscow on Tuesday night.

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