While Raheem Sterling’s continued England omission remains noteworthy for the sudden shunning of a player previously considered one of Gareth Southgate’s dependables, the Three Lions boss must sleep easy knowing the wealth of in-form attacking options still at hand.
Mauricio Pochettino, though, has no such luxury and after recalling Sterling to his starting lineup here, had the winger to thank for dragging his Chelsea side out of the Turf Mire.
A goal down on the brink of half-time, the Blues appeared in danger of sleepwalking towards a first ever Premier League defeat at this Lancashire ground, dominating possession but having played without ambition or guile for almost half-an-hour since Wilson Odobert’s breakaway opener.
With bursts either side of the break, though, Sterling created the two goals that turned the game on its head, then settled it with a third of his own as the visitors went on to claim a 4-1 victory, one that sends them into the international break on the back of their first successive league wins since March.
Having started on the bench at Fulham on Monday night, it was not given that Sterling would return instantly here, Mykhailo Mudryk at last showing signs of life with his first Blues goal at Craven Cottage and since declared fit after an injury scare. Sterling, meanwhile, had seen a bright start to the season fizzle out, without a goal or assist since a brace at Luton in late-August.
Overlooked by his international manager, though, Pochettino was rewarded for not following suit.
For the leveller, Sterling earned his fortune, shimmying past two to reach the byline and watching his cross deflect off the thigh of the unfortunate Ameen Al Dakhil and over the stranded James Trafford. For the second, he did not get that far, wiped out by Vitinho as he darted into the box from wide, leaving Cole Palmer – who may, ironically, be another England rival before long – to convert from 12 yards.
This was the Sterling that Southgate had seen so much value in throughout the first chunk of his England tenure, a player whose drive could be the substitute for unlocking defences in a team, like Chelsea’s, short on natural creativity. Sent away by Conor Gallagher after the break, he fired left-footed across Trafford and in, displaying the finishing touch that, following a barren early part of his England career, at one stage made him the only reliable source of goals beyond Harry Kane.
Southgate these days has more options, Bukayo Saka growing into a regular international scorer, Phil Foden on target during the last break and Jude Bellingham in prolific form for Real Madrid. A few more afternoons like this, though, and Sterling’s England story need not be done yet.