LONDON (Reuters) - When England winger Raheem Sterling last played in a major tournament he became a symbol of all that was wrong with the national team, even branding himself ‘The Hated One’ on Instagram after being pilloried by supporters following the country’s embarrassing defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016.
Two years on, he arrives in Russia as a player reborn and intent on proving himself among the game’s elite.
At 23, the Manchester City forward is a seasoned performer, with six years of international experience that includes the last World Cup when he was one of the few players to impress before England slumped out in the group stage.
Sterling comes into the Russia finals on the back of his best domestic season, having scored more than 20 goals for the first time to help City sweep to the Premier League title. He has held down a regular place in the face of intense competition at City, whose manager Pep Guardiola has played a major part in his development.
Always extravagantly gifted with the ball, Sterling has added more strength and thought to his play to become one of the English game’s most versatile performers.
The problem for England manager Gareth Southgate is where to play him because he has proved just as effective as a support striker as he has out wide.
The only thing missing from Sterling’s game is goals at international level — just two in 37 appearances. He has not scored for England since a Euro 2016 qualifier against Estonia in 2015 and though his finishing has improved at City, he is still often wayward.
But he has a good understanding with England’s main striker Harry Kane, with whom he played at under-21 level, and the World Cup could provide him with the perfect stage.
Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Ken Ferris