Belfast Telegraph

Gareth Southgate backs 'ballsy' Raheem Sterling to bounce back from criticism

Gareth Southgate loves "ballsy" Raheem Sterling and has no doubt the winger will bounce back from his topsy-turvy week with England and Manchester City.

Last weekend the 22-year-old fired Manchester City to a stunning 2-1 comeback victory at Bournemouth deep in stoppage time, only to swiftly receive his marching orders after being deemed to have celebrated excessively.

A one-match domestic ban awaits and speculation grew in the following days that it may be served at Arsenal, with City reportedly willing to use him as a makeweight in a deal for Alexis Sanchez.

Sterling was reportedly open to a move back to London but it never came to fruition, and the less than 24 hours after the deadline passed the wide man lined up for England in Malta.

Things did not go to plan as an ineffective display during a goalless first half saw him taken off at half-time - a difficult decision for former defender Southgate to make, although it worked out as his side went onto win 4-0.

"Look, he's a lad we love," the England manager said. "Of course it's difficult (to be taken off) but he took it really professionally.

"He is a player we have a lot of time for. He's really ballsy.

"As a creative player, some days everything you do works and some days it (doesn't).

"It is much harder to be a creative player than the lump that I was because I was just stopping people and that's much easier.

"To go and beat people, and to beat people in tight spaces, some days that happens and some days it doesn't.

"In the first half, it was the latter for Raheem but he will bounce back from that."

Sterling has certainly had to develop a thick skin over the years, dubbing himself 'the Hated One' after fan criticism during Euro 2016.

Such resilience will come in handy back at City, with competition mounting and Pep Guardiola apparently being willing to let him go.

"Well, I don't know if that's fact," Southgate said of this week's speculation. "I think he is a strong kid, he's mentally tough.

"He has bounced back from things throughout his career, so I've no doubt in my mind that he'll cope with that.

"He started the season with Manchester City well, he is of course at a club where they have got an incredible amount of attacking talent, but he is right in the mix with them."

Such impressive attacking options saw Wayne Rooney, at the time struggling for game time at Manchester United, overlooked for the previous two England squads.

However, a fine start to life back at boyhood club Everton made Southgate keen to recall the forward, only for the country's all-time top scorer to last week call time on his international career.

As England prepared to face Malta, Rooney was in the UK being charged with drink driving - a subject Southgate was not keen to broach.

"I think, clearly, this is a difficult moment for him and his family and I don't think it would be right for me to comment any further because the impact of that, because of position I'm in, is going to be more than it should be," the England boss said.

"It's sad to read the news but that's all I think it's appropriate to say."

Rooney had planned to bow out from international football following the World Cup - a tournament England can take a giant stride towards if they beat second-placed Slovakia on Monday.

Just two points separate the sides yet talk remains of when the Three Lions qualify from Group F rather than if, with friendlies pencilled in against Germany and Brazil for November - presuming they are involved in the play-offs.

Press Association Sport understands a trip to Holland in March is among the friendlies lined up ahead of the World Cup, with games provisionally slated all the way until May - not that Southgate is getting complacent about their chances.

"Well, we're not (taking it for granted)," he said ahead of Slovakia's visit.

"They've had a super result. Our matches with them were really tight, at the Euros and in Slovakia down to 10, it took us until the last minute.

"So they are strong, they're proud, they have good players like (Marek) Hamsik who can hurt you, so we've got to be thoroughly well prepared and recovered for the game.

"It's also a fantastic opportunity for us now. We have a home game and if we get the right result we are virtually in Russia."

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