Gareth Southgate has backed Raheem Sterling to overtake Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to be recognised as the world’s No 1 footballer.
Sterling underlined his development as one of the planet’s most outstanding talents with a breathtaking first-half display for England in Tuesday’s 5-3 in over Kosovo, scoring his eighth goal in as many international matches and assisting three others.
But his near unstoppable performance was merely the latest in an expanding catalogue of match-winning contributions for club and country over the past three years.
Gareth Southgate has backed Raheem Sterling to become the world's best player
With Messi, 32, and Ronaldo, 34, entering the twilight of their careers, the race to overtake the superstar duo to be the world’s best footballer is hotting up.
And England boss Southgate believes Sterling has that capacity.
He said: ‘In terms of can he fulfil it, he’ll give himself every chance of doing that. There are obviously some outstanding players around, the [Eden] Hazards, the [Kevin] De Bruynes, Messi and Ronaldo. But he’s got the drive, he’s got the professionalism, he’s got the ability. He’s physically and mentally strong for such a small statured lad.’
Sterling’s emergence as arguably England’s most influential player illustrates a remarkable turnaround in his international career.
The England boss feels Sterling can overtake Lionel Messi (left) and Cristiano Ronaldo (right)
The forward was just 21 when he infamously branded himself ‘the hated one’ during Euro 2016 as The Three Lions limped out with defeat to Iceland.
Fast-forward three years and Sterling is now revered by England fans.
Southgate added: ‘For me it’s lovely to see the shift in the public opinion of him. We have always picked him. There have been times where he has not played well and we have taken him off and that has been the right thing, but he has always been integral to the way we want to play.
‘I can only imagine [how low he was after Euro 2016]. Everyone wants to be liked, don’t they?
‘He’s a player that has always given his all. It’s lovely to see a young man establishing himself, at the real top table in the game. We feel very lucky to have him as one of ours.’
Yet, Southgate recognises Sterling’s transformation is not complete. Privately, Sterling feels the same. He yearns for the sort of consistency Messi and Ronaldo maintained during their near decade-long period at the peak.
Sterling continues to shine for club and country as he stakes his claim as one of world's best
Southgate added: ‘It’s hard to assess how far he can go. Winning trophies is important. That will come down to performances in the biggest matches, in the championships, in the latter stages of the Champions League.
‘No matter how much we think of some outstanding players there have been, they have to have made a difference in the biggest of games.
‘But he’s got the ability to influence those games. He’s probably going to have those opportunities with his club. We’ve got to make sure he gets those opportunities with England.’