England's plan to celebrate their 1,000th international by qualifying for Euro 2020 in serene style against Montenegro at Wembley on Thursday has been ripped up by Gareth Southgate's decision to drop Raheem Sterling. The Manchester City winger was involved in a physical confrontation with Liverpool defender Joe Gomez at England's training base on Monday as emotions spilled over from the highly-anticipated Premier League clash between the two clubs on Sunday. Sterling has been the star of a qualifying campaign dominated by off-field issues where the Three Lions have largely let their football do the talking on it. Bar a shock defeat to the Czech Republic last month, the World Cup semi-finalists have shown why they will be among the favourites to win a first major tournament in 54 years next summer.
Sterling has scored eight of his side's 26 goals in six games as he has blossomed into one of the world's best players for club and country since failing to find his best form at the World Cup 18 months ago. He has also been a leading figure as England have stood up to the racist abuse suffered by a number of players in Montenegro and Bulgaria. One of Southgate's strengths since taking charge three years ago has been to foster a unity in the camp, far removed from the club-aligned cliques that hampered the chances of talented England sides of the past.
That now faces its biggest test as the bubbling rivalry between Liverpool and City threatens to spill over. Southgate's first instinct was reportedly to send Sterling home, but the intervention of senior players, principally Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, helped ease the feud and the 24-year-old has remained with the squad to train.
"I always have to find the right solution for the group and that's a very difficult line," said Southgate on Tuesday. "We have a very good understanding of the way that we have worked over the last couple of years, which has brought us a lot of togetherness that is still there. We are a united group. Now we have to turn our focus onto the football. We have a hugely important qualifier to reach a European Championship." Sterling has since apologised to Gomez and the rest of the squad. "I am man enough to admit when emotions got the better of me," he said in an Instagram post. "Me and Joe Gomez are good, we both understand it was a five to 10-second thing... it's done, we move forward and not make this bigger than it is."
Sterling could even return to action as soon as Sunday when Southgate's men travel to Kosovo. England will hope there is nothing riding on that match for them as a point against the side ranked 61st in the world on Thursday will be enough to guarantee qualification. Even in Sterling's absence, Southgate is blessed with an array of attacking talent including Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford that should continue England's free-scoring form.
But Southgate's action has been criticised by some for bringing a private incident into the public eye and putting Sterling under more scrutiny as a result. "Why this couldn't be handled internally?" said former England defender Rio Ferdinand. "Now Raheem is left to defend himself from all of the haters that had had their keyboards turned off due to him becoming a very worthy ambassador for the English game." If England's long wait to win a major tournament is to come to an end, Southgate needs to continue getting the best out of Sterling. The question remains what lasting impact the developments of the last two days will have on their relationship going forward.