Gareth Southgate has welcomed Raheem Sterling becoming a star player for England and hailed the forward's increasing influence on and off the pitch.

Sterling initially struggled to turn his club form for Manchester City into high-level performances for the Three Lions, regularly facing strong criticism over his performances.

He branded himself "The Hated One" in a post on social media while enduring a difficult time during England's unsuccessful Euro 2016 campaign.

Since then, however, Sterling has grown to play a key role for England with a stunning run of eight goals in his past eight appearances demonstrating his importance for Southgate's side.

Sterling equalised in Tuesday's 5-3 Euro 2020 qualifying win over Kosovo and created a further three goals, including providing assists for both of Jadon Sancho's maiden international goals.

The attacker has also become a social figurehead, drawing praise for speaking out over racism and going viral for his interactions with supporters, with manager Southgate delighted to have a front-row seat to Sterling's continued rise to superstardom.

"For me, it's lovely to see the shift in the public opinion of him," Southgate said of the 24-year-old.

"That's still a brave thing to decide that: 'Right, I'm going to own that space and I'm going to put my own views across'. But those views represent many as well, so I think he's aware of the power of his voice, but he also doesn't waste it.

"I think he was very forthright in his social media posts [about racism]. I think he raised everybody's awareness and made us all think, which was very mature and impressive. And, at the same time, he rose to the challenge with his club, with new signings coming in.

"You know, when you are at a club like that, to keep fighting off the quality of players that he has; and straight away with us, got the goals in Spain - first game after the World Cup for him, really. Croatia away, Spain. I think it was such a huge weight lifted for him, he almost jumped six foot in the stadium, didn't he? 

"So I think from that moment - because he did come home a bit sad after the World Cup, there's no hiding from that. He didn't deserve to feel that way, but that's as he was, so it's lovely to see the recognition he's getting and how much extra I think that's bringing out of him.

"If there are things that he thinks can be better with the mentality of the players or the way that we've set the week out, he'll thoughtfully put ideas across; he doesn't just sit and complain.

"But then you see his interaction with the players. I noticed, over the last 24 hours especially [prior to facing Kosovo], he spent a lot of time with Jadon, I think that was probably quite a comfort.

"He can pass things on that I can speak [about] as the coach, but there'll be more depth to that if your fellow winger who has been at the same club as you, and has been through what you’re going to go through can talk to you. I think that's far more powerful. You can't quantify what that will have meant for Jadon."

Asked how Sterling will have felt to have been made a scapegoat earlier in his international career, Southgate said: "Difficult for me to say. I can only imagine. Everyone wants to be liked, don't they?

"Everybody, players give their all. He's a player that has always given his all… You know how much it means to him, how much he wants to do well.

"So, I think it's for him to reflect on how he might have felt then and, for me, it's just lovely to see a young man establishing himself, at the real top table in the game."

Southgate indicated he also sees an England future for Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham, who qualifies to play for Nigeria in addition to the Three Lions.

"Tammy is a young player that we’ve always liked, we know he'll score goals," he said. "We felt it was a bit early this time to call him up, but we really can see that he can offer us something moving forward.

"We gave him a cap back in November of 2017. For sure, we need to make certain that he feels that the opportunity is going to be there. I'm pretty sure he does, he knows us well enough."

Raheem Sterling acknowledges he cannot be compared to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo until he has performed at the highest level for a number of seasons, but that is his aim.

The Manchester City forward was in irrepressible form in England's 5-3 win against Kosovo on Tuesday, scoring an early equaliser and then laying on three assists in a stunning first-half display.

Sterling's performance continued an outstanding start to the new season, with eight goals to his name for club and country already.

The 24-year-old scored 35 times in the Premier League across the previous two campaigns, but he concedes he is still some way short of the standard set by all-time greats Messi and Ronaldo.

"The most remarkable thing about these players is not that they've been doing it for two or three seasons," said Sterling. "They've been doing it for pretty much their whole career, season after season.

"This is my third season at a high level, I would say, and I just have to keep continuing. I have full belief in myself.

"I have goals and they've been goals of mine since I was a child, and I'll keep thriving and keep learning and try to get all the way to the top, for sure."

Sterling had scored just twice for his country prior to visiting Spain last October but doubled his international tally with a brace in that away win and now has 10 goals in England colours.

"When I first put on the England shirt, I wasn't looking at my stats too much," he said. "It wasn't until I saw how bad they were I put extra pressure on myself to score.

"But I said to myself that once my first goal goes in, I know that the goals will come after that. That's all I was waiting for.

"That night in Spain when I scored two, from then I knew I'd kick on and keep scoring goals."

Gareth Southgate believes Raheem Sterling has been close to "unstoppable" after his dazzling display in England's entertaining 5-3 win over Kosovo in Euro 2020 qualifying.

Sterling scored and set up three others as England came from a goal down at St Mary's Stadium to preserve their 100 per cent record in Group A on Tuesday.

England conceded inside 34 seconds but Sterling restored parity before the Manchester City star teed up Harry Kane and providing the assists for Jadon Sancho's brace.

Sterling's performance came after he scored and supplied two assists for Kane in England's 4-0 rout of Bulgaria last week, and manager Southgate heaped praise on the in-form 24-year-old.

"Our attacking play from Raheem, Jadon and Harry was outstanding," Southgate said. "Raheem's two performances have been of the highest level. 

"I think he's been almost unstoppable, his awareness of where defenders were, his ability to ride challenges, his vision and desire to get in on goal, and unselfish play as well, so I couldn't speak highly enough of the way he played."

It was a memorable outing for Sancho in Southampton, where the Borussia Dortmund sensation scored his first England goals.

"Jadon – you know we were talking about the three on Saturday – Jadon's performance was at that level as well. He worked really hard for the team without the ball and showed the ability he has to go past people, to be calm in tight areas," Southgate said.

"So, that part of our game was absolutely outstanding. We continued that threat for most of the game."

While England made it four wins from four games to be three points clear atop Group A, the Three Lions were far from convincing defensively against Kosovo.

Errors saw England concede three goals to the visiting minnows and Southgate added: "It was bizarre. The outstanding features and the poor features are apparent to everybody, so we don't need to get the video out and go back through it.

"Poor individual mistakes, a poor start to the game. I like the way we showed the composure to recover from that initial mistake and our use of the ball throughout the first half was excellent, right the way through the team.

"The small period after half-time: ridiculous mistakes, poor decisions, lack of covering back. So, we made the game really uncomfortable for ourselves. There were obviously mistakes that were concerning. Whether it was the intensity of the game, whether it was the pressure, I don't know. We've got to reflect on that but they were such basic errors, really, that you have to learn from. We just made some crazy errors."

Gareth Southgate accepted England made poor defensive mistakes in Tuesday's thrilling 5-3 defeat of Kosovo and demanded his side improve.

Raheem Sterling shone with a goal and three assists as England came from behind in an entertaining clash in Southampton.

Jadon Sancho struck his first international goals, with Harry Kane also on target, although the usually impeccable Three Lions captain failed to convert a second-half penalty.

Kosovo, though, forced regular mistakes from the Nations League semi-finalists, including in the first minute when a Michael Keane lapse led to Valon Berisha's opener.

Berisha would later profit again after Declan Rice gave the ball away too easily, while a Harry Maguire challenge resulted in Vedat Muriqi scoring a spot-kick.

England ultimately had too much firepower thanks to Sterling and Sancho but Southgate was under no illusions about the work to do in defence.

"It had its moments! A bizarre game really," Southgate told ITV after England extended their 100 per cent record in Group A.

"There were obvious poor errors for goals but I'm really pleased with the composure we showed.

"We had devastating attacking play throughout and we used the ball well.

"The mistakes were obvious, the errors, we have to be better. The players don't need me to tell them that.

"The outstanding parts of our play were obvious, the errors were obvious."

England return to action next month with away trips to the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

Jadon Sancho dedicated his first England goals to his late grandmother after starring in a 5-3 Euro 2020 qualifying win over Kosovo.

England trailed in the first minute at St Mary's Stadium on Tuesday, but Raheem Sterling shone as they hit back to lead 5-1 at the break.

Sterling provided two assists for Borussia Dortmund winger Sancho in quick succession, the teenager becoming the youngest player to score more than once in a game for England since Wayne Rooney in 2004.

"It was a good run from Raheem, he found me and I slotted it home," Sancho, 19, told ITV.

"It means a lot to me personally and for my family it is a special day.

"I dedicate the goals to my nan, who was a big fan of me but has sadly passed away."

 

 

Gareth Southgate's side responded well after a Michael Keane error allowed Valon Berisha to score the first of his two goals with just 34 seconds on the clock.

"It was a crazy game. I'm delighted to score my first goal for England," said Sancho.

"The opener was a bad mistake from us but it was a great comeback."

After the restart England conceded twice more and Sancho acknowledged there are defensive improvements needed despite a fourth Group A win out of four games.

"I think we started a bit slow [after half-time]," he added. "Next time we have to pick up on that and learn from it."

Raheem Sterling scored and recorded a trio of assists while Jadon Sancho hit his first England goals as Gareth Southgate's side came from behind to beat Kosovo 5-3 in Southampton. 

Kosovo led after 34 seconds of the Euro 2020 qualifier at St Mary's Stadium on Tuesday, Valon Berisha giving the Three Lions a scare, but they roared back to lead 5-1 at half-time thanks to Sterling's inspirational display.

He levelled the scores with a header and set up Harry Kane to make it 2-1 before Mergim Vojvoda's own goal, Sterling then providing assists for Sancho's two strikes in an action-packed Group A clash.

England lost their focus after the interval with Berisha netting again and Vedat Muriqi converting a penalty - a feat Kane failed to match soon after - to make the final scoreline closer than Sterling's superb showing deserved.

Kosovo were gifted an early opener when Michael Keane's loose pass allowed Fidan Aliti to tee up Berisha for his second international goal since changing allegiance from Norway.

The hosts responded well and drew level in the eighth minute, Keane heading a right-wing Ross Barkley corner back across goal for a leaping Sterling to profit from close range.

Sterling then created England's second, brilliantly turning into space on halfway and feeding Kane for a powerful finish through the legs of Kosovo goalkeeper Arijanet Muric.

England opened up a four-goal advantage before the break. Vojvoda turned a low Sancho cross into his own net before the Borussia Dortmund winger opened his international account with a quickfire double.

Sloppy play allowed Kosovo to net first after the restart. Declan Rice lost the ball on halfway and Berisha curled home his second of the game, then Harry Maguire's clumsiness enabled Muriqi to reduce the deficit further from the spot.

England should have restored a three-goal cushion but captain Kane saw his penalty pushed away by Muric while the goalkeeper - on Manchester City's books - later deflected a Sterling shot on to the post.


What does it mean? England closing on qualification

Reaching the Euro 2020 finals always looked on the cards for England but they have made light work of their competition in Group A, scoring 19 goals already and winning all four of their games, although defensive weaknesses were exposed here. 

Kosovo are still occupying second spot in the group and have every chance of reaching their first international tournament given the impressive way they carried the fight against their lauded opponents.


Unplayable Sterling at top of his game

Kosovo's open tactics played into England's hands but Sterling made the most of the time and space he was routinely given in the opposition half. On current form, few players in the world are as dangerous as the City star, who it is easy to forget is only 24 years old.


Keane at risk of losing his place

Bernard Challandes' side pressed ferociously from the first whistle and it did not take them long to force an error from Everton defender Keane. With John Stones expected to be fit for England's next fixtures Keane will likely drop out of the team, partly due to his latest mistake.


What's next?

England have an away double-header against Czech Republic and Bulgaria next month, while October's international break sees Kosovo travel to Gibraltar and host Montenegro.

England manager Gareth Southgate believes the road to major tournaments has become too easy and predictable for major European nations.

England are expected to maintain their perfect start to Euro 2020 qualifying when they face Kosovo, the world's 120th-ranked team, at St Mary's on Tuesday.

Southgate's men have scored 14 goals in their three Group A games after beating Bulgaria 4-0 last time out.

England are undefeated in 42 European Championship and World Cup qualifiers, a run dating back to a 1-0 loss to Ukraine in October 2009.

Not every heavyweight has enjoyed that level of comfort, with Netherlands and Italy missing last year's World Cup in Russia, but the Three Lions boss feels such shocks will become a thing of the past.

"If I look across Europe in general, you'd have to say there isn't enough jeopardy in the qualification process to make all of the groups as exciting as they could be," Southgate said ahead of the Kosovo clash.

"We saw the difference that the Nations League presented in terms of excitement for fans and the thrill of that.

"I'm taking [Tuesday's] game out of the equation, because I think it will be an enjoyable game, the way they play, the way they press, the passion and enthusiasm they've got.

"But in general, I think we have to be careful that we don't devalue [the main tournament]. It's hard because there are so many new countries now and so many countries to involve in the process, but we've got to do the right thing for the supporters as well. I think you have to maintain the highest possible quality."

The European Championships grew from 16 teams to 24 in 2016, while the World Cup will expand from 32 to 48 in 2026.

Southgate added: "I think the big thing is the number of teams that get to the finals and I understand wanting to open that up to more.

"But I just think if I'm looking at it from a football development point of view or an appeal for everybody else, then I would question whether it's the right thing."

Kosovo boss Bernard Challandes has dared his players to dream of producing an upset against England, who he labelled as the best team in the world.

World Cup 2018 semi-finalists England have won all three Euro 2020 qualifiers ahead of Tuesday's visit of Kosovo at St Mary's Stadium, scoring 14 goals and conceding one.

Kosovo also enter the match in good form thanks to an unbeaten 15-match run, but Challandes is fully aware of the size of the task facing his side in Southampton.

"We are Kosovo and we are here against one of the best teams in the world - in my opinion the best team in the world," he said at Monday's pre-match news conference.

"I think it is in my philosophy that if we don't dream it is unnecessary to play such games, we should dream and do all that is possible to disturb England."

Kosovo were only accepted as a UEFA and FIFA member in 2016 and they have gone nearly two years since last tasting defeat.

Challandes' side have drawn two and won two of their Group F qualifiers and occupy second place, sitting one point adrift of England who have a game in hand to play.

"We are a young federation - never have we played against such an opponent," Challandes said on the eve of the top-of-the-table clash.

"For me as a coach it is not easy to have a good mix for the evaluation of this game.

"If I say, 'We come to win', I think a lot of people think that is pretentious. If I say, 'It is not possible to win against England', I must change my job.

"Never did we think after four games that we play for the first place here in England.

"It is clear for me it will be a very, very hard game but it is a possibility for our very young team to show what is a very, very high level."

England maintained their impressive goalscoring form in Saturday's 4-0 win over Bulgaria, captain Harry Kane netting a hat-trick and setting up Raheem Sterling for the other.

But Challandes insisted his side will not sit back and defend against the Group A pacesetters.

"Harry Kane and Sterling and [Marcus] Rashford and, and, and, and, and..." he said.

"For me it is a wonderful team but I have only this way in my head - I don't want to say to my team, 'Okay, we stay in our own half and defend, defend, defend'.

"I hope we can play and be an opponent, not a big opponent but and opponent with intensity."

Victory over Kosovo will see England take another huge step towards qualifying for next year's European Championship finals, where a number of games - including the semi-finals and final - will be staged at Wembley.

After lifting the Champions League with Liverpool in June, Three Lions midfielder Jordan Henderson is eyeing his first piece of silverware at international level on home soil.

"It would mean a lot, any trophy that I win, I will be over the moon," he told reporters. "That is all I ever want is to win, whether that's at Liverpool or England.

"It means so much to me to win trophies or win as a team. To win a trophy in the summer was massive and huge for me and my team, for England that is what we want to achieve.

"We want to win trophies and be as successful as we can be. Hopefully one day we can do that."

England manager Gareth Southgate has confirmed Harry Kane will start against Kosovo on Tuesday, but is adamant his skipper is not "undroppable".

Tottenham striker Kane scored a hat-trick as the Three Lions eased to a 4-0 Euro 2020 qualifying victory over Bulgaria on Saturday.

It comes after he had to settle for a place on the bench in the Nations League semi-final against Netherlands after missing much of the latter stages of last season through injury.

Southgate plans to make changes for the game at St Mary's but says Kane's quality makes it difficult for him to be left out and he will resist the temptation to rest him for what will be the first ever meeting between the two nations at senior level.

"In the summer we decided that he wasn't ready to start, so I don't think you can have a player that is undroppable, because that is a dangerous route for any team and it is not a healthy position for a player," Southgate said. 

"But it is safe to say we won't be dropping him for tomorrow.

"His level of performance is so high that dropping him would be a rare occurrence.

"We might freshen the team a bit, that will be important. We don't need to, everyone is fit and available. We need to make sure we get the balance right.

"We need to get the right attacking and defending profiles to make sure we win the game."

Southgate is wary of the threat posed by a second-placed Kosovo side who have already defeated Czech Republic in Group A.

He added: "We are expecting a different sort of challenge to Saturday - but one we are looking forward to.

"It will be a very different style of game. Kosovo will be very high pressing, hard working, a more attacking threat than we faced on Saturday.

"Maybe there will be more space to play up front. Whatever we learned from Saturday's game this is a completely different challenge."

Southgate, meanwhile, gave praise to midfielder Declan Rice for the way he has dealt with social media abuse directed towards him and his family after switching international allegiance to England from the Republic of Ireland. 

He said: "When I spoke with Declan about the possibility of him transferring association across, I was very conscious that this was something that could happen.

"That is why I wanted to tread very carefully, to make sure him and his family had all the time they needed to make a decision.

"I never pushed, because I suspected that this would be part of the consequences of that.

"I think he has dealt with everything incredibly maturely."

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