England: Marcus Rashford vs Raheem Sterling
Will it be the City star or the United youngster that partners Harry Kane in Russia?
The time has finally come. Gareth Southgate leads the Three Lions to Russia with a settled formation, having built from a foundation of 3-5-2 throughout his tenure.
Southgate appeared to pick close to his strongest XI against Nigeria at Wembley, but the 2-0 win over Costa Rica will have given him something to think about.
On the back of Raheem Sterling spurning golden chances against the Nigerians, Marcus Rashford provided a timely reminder of his goal scoring ability with a stunning strike to give England the lead at Elland Road.
But can Southgate really drop the City man after a 23 goal title winning season?
Sterling’s England record
Raheem Sterling has become part of the furniture since making his England debut aged just 17 against Sweden in 2012.
Despite featuring against a number of poor sides in various qualification campaigns, Sterling has scored just two goals in 38 caps. A woefully bad record by any standards, but even more so given Sterling’s calibre and ability.
The roles in Southgate’s 3-5-2 are well defined by this point in his reign. The five will be made up of a holder, likely to be Henderson or Dier, two more attacking midfielders in Lingard and Alli, and then the two wing backs.
This leaves Kane and one other upfront. The system requires a pacey dynamic forward to play alongside the Three Lions captain. There is only room for one. Can England really put their faith in Sterling, a man that hasn’t scored in his last 20 England appearances to play as a forward?
His Manchester City form would suggest that his selection should be a no-brainer. 18 goals and 15 assists in the league alone is an outstanding contribution. As ludicrous as it seems to ask – are these types of goals and assists compatible with how England will play in Russia?
City score an extremely high number of goals from cutbacks. In David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, they possess two of the finest technicians to have ever graced the Premier League. They are so adept at getting in behind that the likes of Sterling and Leroy Sane are able to either get on the end of through balls to square across goal or to be on the end of the square balls themselves.
Tournament football, particularly in the early stages, are littered with turgid defensive performances that prioritise surrendering no space whatsoever by showing very little attacking ambition.
The onus will be on England to find a moment of magic, to remain patient, and crucially to convert any opportunity that may come their way, thus opening the game up with their opposition then having to show more attacking intent.
Sterling’s sketchy record when one on one would be a worry. However, this is not to say that Rashford is perfect either.
The Rashford gamble
Going into Euro 2016, Marcus Rashford was the late wildcard pick after becoming the Premier League’s most exciting young player in just three months with United’s first team.
Manchester United then opted to sack Louis Van Gaal and replace him with Jose Mourinho, and ever since Rashford has looked shackled.
The 20-year-old has been forced to play predominantly from wide positions, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then Romelu Lukaku blocking his path down the middle.
With Mourinho having criticised him after United’s 1-0 defeat at Brighton, and again after the FA Cup final, it would be understandable if Rashford went into the World Cup a little down on himself.
Against Costa Rica however, it was quite the opposite. He looked like a man with the shackles released. Not only did he score a stunning goal, he was a constant menace to the Costa Rica defence, almost teasing them at times with his trickery and bamboozling skill.
After a season of frustration, this could be the perfect opportunity for Rashford to remind the world what a talent he is. And if Jose Mourinho still won’t back him, he can put himself firmly in the shop window for a big money move.
It’s a tough choice, but whoever Southgate opts for, he’ll have a superb option on the substitutes bench.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.