England door is always open for Raheem Sterling – Gareth Southgate
Raheem Sterling was the headline absentee as Gareth Southgate handed Eberechi Eze his first England call-up and ended Lewis Dunk’s time in the international wilderness.
Having kicked off Euro 2024 qualification with wins over Italy and Ukraine, attention turns to June’s straightforward-looking doubleheader against Malta and North Macedonia.
Sterling is the most eye-catching absentee for those games as a difficult first season since swapping Manchester City for Chelsea comes to a frustrating conclusion.
The 28-year-old has not played for England since the World Cup quarter-final exit to France – when a burglary at home disrupted his preparations – as injury ruled him out of the March camp.
“I spoke with him a week or so ago – a general catch-up,” England boss Southgate said.
“He’s not happy physically with his condition, having been carrying a hamstring problem. He really wasn’t in consideration.
“So, we didn’t get to the point of whether he should be in or out. He doesn’t think he is operating at the level he needs.”
A representative for Sterling called it a “mutual decision” that allows the player to focus on “recuperating his body in preparation for the upcoming season”.
The 28-year-old is determined to play a key role for England next term and Southgate says he can get back into the fold ahead of next year’s finals, as can omitted Tottenham defender Eric Dier.
“As we’ve shown with Tyrone (Mings) coming back (this time) and other players like Trent (Alexander-Arnold) coming back in, the door is always open when players are playing well,” Southgate told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“Eric and Raheem both have physical issues really at the moment that they’re dealing with, so there’s part of that is behind that decision as well.
“But there’s another year to go before the Euros and it’s possible for everybody to get in that squad.”
Mings, Alexander-Arnold, Callum Wilson and Sam Johnstone returned to the England squad as Southgate has largely stuck with the tried and tested for the Group C games, with Crystal Palace attacking midfielder Eze the only uncapped player named in the group.
The 24-year-old finally get his shot with England after an Achilles injury cost him a place in the provisional Euro 2020 squad.
“We have liked him for a long time,” Southgate said.
“He was very unfortunate just before the Euros. We were going to call him into a prep camp to have a look at him and he got a bad injury.
“I remember talking to Roy Hodgson about him then and Roy telling me he’d picked up an injury in training that day.
“I think he has finished the season really strongly, he can play in a couple of positions across that attacking line.
“He’s a goal threat, he’s got nice ability and bursts of speed to go past people and to take people out of the game with dribbling skills.
“We’re looking forward to seeing him a bit closer and everybody I speak to talks brilliantly about him as a person as well.”
Dunk has played for England but the Brighton captain has not been selected since winning his first cap against the United States in November 2018.
“Brighton’s football this year has been exceptional and Lewis Dunk and Levi Cowell have been a big part of that,” Southgate said.
“He’s shown great composure with the ball, he’s asked to defend very often one against one situations and he thoroughly deserves his call.”
The squad also includes Marcus Rashford, who missed March’s fixtures and last featured for England in a qualifier in the run to the last Euros.
“He’s a super player who’s had a really good season, so he’s an important player for us,” Southgate told talkSPORT.
“We’ve not been blessed with having him to be able to put in the team too often but we’re hoping that’s different. And we’re looking forward to seeing him again.”
There is no place for Ben White, who has not featured for England since leaving Qatar after the World Cup group stage due to personal reasons.
“I spoke with Ben before the camp in March,” Southgate added.
“But at the moment, we’ve got (Kieran) Trippier and (Kyle) Walker in that area of the pitch.
“He’s had a very good season, as have the whole Arsenal team, but he’s not ahead of those guys at the moment.”
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