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New faces give England reasons to believe

Thursday 15th November 2012 9:18

Raheem Sterling: Encouraging performance

Raheem Sterling: Encouraging performance

Adam Bate looks beyond the Zlatan show to pick the positives from England's 4-2 friendly defeat by Sweden in Stockholm on Wednesday.

The focus in the build-up to England's trip to Sweden had quite understandably been on centurion Steven Gerrard. The England captain was making his 100th appearance for his country and led the team well before being withdrawn, with the Three Lions 2-1 up in Stockholm with a quarter of an hour remaining.

What followed is unlikely ever to be forgotten by anyone watching inside Sweden's new national stadium or indeed those sat in front of their television screens. Zlatan Ibrahimovic stole the show with a sensational series of strikes culminating in the barely believable overhead volley that completed his four-goal masterpiece.

But while the build-up belonged to the England skipper and the night to his Swedish counterpart, perhaps the long-term significance of the evening could lie elsewhere. Roy Hodgson gave debuts to six players on Wednesday evening and it would be no surprise if some of them have a big role to play in the national team's future.

Raheem Sterling, the 17-year-old Liverpool winger, was given an opportunity from the start and grasped it with a confident performance that will have encouraged Hodgson. It was not polished. The teenager was dispossessed for the opening goal and occasionally gave the ball away in positions that will have unsettled his manager.

But the overwhelming memory of Sterling's display was his desire to receive the ball and to create openings for his side. This was not a shy youngster anxious not to make mistakes. He played with verve and belief, probing the Swedish defence with his ambitious dribbling and always looking for the ball into his feet however tight the situation.

That enthusiasm was matched by fellow debutant Steven Caulker in defence. The 20-year-old Tottenham defender would have been forgiven for shrinking under pressure after several miscontrolled passes, and when the ball ricocheted back to Ibrahimovic to open the scoring after his impressive block he may have been convinced this wasn't his night.

But Caulker stuck to his task and grew into the role. His debut goal no doubt helped. And from that point he was producing interceptions, winning headers and looking the part as an international centre-back. Perhaps the difficulties Ryan Shawcross immediately experienced when replacing the former Swansea loanee were an indication of the manful job he had done in handling Ibrahimovic for 74 minutes.

And if Sterling's wide-eyed enthusiasm was matched by Caulker, his close control and technical abilities were mirrored by the assured performance put in by 31-year-old late starter Leon Osman in midfield. The Everton man knitted the play with conviction and showed just why tidy and efficient use of the ball can be vital in the occasionally disjointed world of international football.

If Sterling proved that age is no barrier, then Osman's mere presence may act as an inspiration to those English footballers seemingly overlooked for international honours. Meanwhile, the late introduction of Wilfried Zaha also suggests that life in the lower leagues need not exclude players from Hodgson's England.

The England team has so often seemed a tired old beast - the same players suffering the same old disappointments - and the inevitable navel-gazing that accompanied the Gerrard retrospectives added to that feeling ahead of this fixture.

But the performances and indeed mere presence of England's debutants, as well as the returning Jack Wilshere, indicated that things are anything but stale.

So when Roy Hodgson has recovered from the shock of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's memorable display and congratulated Steven Gerrard, he will surely take some comfort in the changing face of his England squad.

Adam Bate



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