Soccer: No surprise Sterling is Croatian focal point, says Southgate

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(Getty) England coach Southgate

Criticism leveled at young England forward Raheem Sterling for his paltry returns at the Russia World Cup is off the mark, Gareth Southgate said Tuesday.

Despite levels of positivity around English soccer not seen in recent memory, Sterling has still come under fire at home for his lack of production in front of goal.

But a day after being singled out as one of England's major threats by Croatian manager Zlatko Dalic, the England coach came to the Manchester City attacker's defense in Moscow.

"I'm not surprised that Croatia have identified Raheem as a key player," said the 47-year-old Southgate. "If you look at our attacking patterns and the way that our front four have combined and played, he has been instrumental."

Dalic said Sterling's speed and work alongside tournament top scorer Harry Kane is "really dangerous" and combatting it will be vital to slowing the Three Lions' attack.

Sterling has played four games in Russia, only sitting out England's final pool match against Belgium when both qualified teams fielded second-string sides.

In 335 minutes, the 23-year-old has only mustered seven shots, one on target, and is yet to score. He was, however, credited with an assist for his part in a 1-2 that led to a lovely Jesse Lingard goal in England's 6-1 win over Panama.

But Southgate was not having any of the criticism.

"I think he is a player who is really appreciated by the team...We are really pleased with his contribution, his work ethic without the ball has been incredible for us. He's a huge threat and in the game against Sweden was a huge threat throughout."

The manager, who himself was capped 57 times by England, said Sterling was just one of the young players that played a significant role in getting the team a World Cup semifinal for the first time since 1990.

Southgate said nobody knows how far England, the third-youngest squad at the tournament after Nigeria and France according to Gracenote Sports, can go.

"The improvement in the players, the hunger in the players, has been apparent for everybody to see," he said.

"We're really proud of the style that we've played, with the intelligence we have played, and that we have performed under pressure and dealt with difficult situations."

Southgate may never have to buy a beer in England again, but if he gets the team into the final and then wins the whole thing, he will be hailed as the new messiah.

England and Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson said he deserves all the plaudits, saying Southgate had the team on the same page as soon as he took over from Sam Allardyce in 2016.

"Having an identity and playing in a way that we felt comfortable as a team, the manager has implemented that brilliantly," Henderson said while sitting next to Southgate at the pre-match press conference at Luzhniki Stadium.

"I think you can see that togetherness on the pitch now and I think that is vital in crucial moments in big games."

Henderson said the identity Southgate brought to the team had been lacking, and it has enabled them to make this run to the World Cup final four.

"This is the most together England team that I have been involved in," he said. "Now we are in the semifinal of the World Cup, and we want to continue and give everything to get to the final."