October 9, 2015 – England, having already secured their qualification for Euro 2016, limp to an uneventful 2-0 win over an organised Estonia side. Theo Walcott opens the scoring shortly before half-time following a fine through-ball from Man-of-the-Match Ross Barkley before a 20-year-old Raheem Sterling – three months on from leaving Liverpool behind for Manchester City – seals victory with his second international goal five minutes from time.
Almost three years have passed since that rather forgettable Friday night at the national stadium, but for Sterling it marks the last time he was able to find the net for the Three Lions. Against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod his lack of goals on the international stage led to intense speculation over his inclusion, but it now appears that he will start ahead of Manchester United's Marcus Rashford.
Sterling's profligacy in front of goal for England is remarkable given how much he has improved his finishing under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta at the Etihad Stadium. A return of 23 goals in 46 appearances for City last season was by far the best of his still fledgling career, and yet still he has been unable to replicate such form for the national team.
Though his failure to convert a low cross from five yards in the early stages of Monday's win over Tunisia should soon be forgotten given that an offside flag would have ruled it out regardless, it provided a rare example in recent months of Sterling losing his cool when presented with a relatively straightforward opportunity; almost getting to the ball too soon and finding himself with it under his feet rather than out in front of him to strike.
He missed the target in a similar fashion against Burnley at Turf Moor back in March to widespread derision, only to answer his critics in his very next outing with a goal against Leicester City and three more in the subsequent five Premier League games. Southgate will be hopeful that he can respond in a similar fashion as England plot their route through the tournament, particularly given the faith he has shown in the forward.
Even if he does not find the net in Russia, though, it is far too simple to measure Sterling's impact on this current England team just in goals. Though there is no doubt his return should be better than it is after 39 appearances in an England squad packed with pacey attacking players, he remains their trump card.
“Sometimes we judge him about ‘he missed that goal’, ‘he missed again that shot’, but the amount of actions he creates, the assists, he creates fouls, penalties, because he's so fast and quick, sometimes he is unstoppable in those situations,” Guardiola said of Sterling in April.
“And the most magnificent thing is he is 23 years old, so he is still focused, keeping the desire to get better, as a player. His understanding of the game is global: he's a guy who can create inside, make a movement outside, dribbling, runs in behind."
Only Sterling and Rashford have the ability to commit defenders on a regular basis, and while many of England's opportunities in the opening moments against Tunisia came via passing moves between the lines, at some stage Southgate is going to require his team to be more direct with the ball at their feet. When that time comes, Sterling must stand up.
During England's second-half meltdown in Volgograd, Sterling was singled out for his lack of penetration, unable to produce the moment of magic when those around him were visibly shaken by the sudden nature of Tunisia's equaliser from the penalty spot.
Sterling holds the edge over Rashford in terms of overall ability, however, despite the possibility that the United star could deal with similar situations in a better manner from a psychological perspective given his lack of previous failures.
Sterling has had his fair share of knocks in the build-up to the tournament and shown great resolve to – at least on the surface – not allow them to affect him. The key now is to continue with that attitude as he looks to rediscover his match-winning touch – whether in front of goal or not.