Daniel Sturridge is a “special player” and Roy Hodgson hopes the England striker will prove key for the remainder of Euro 2016.
Reduced to a watching brief as the Group B opener against Russia finished 1-1, the Three Lions’ position looked bleak when the 26-year-old was thrown on for the second half against Wales along with Jamie Vardy .
The half-time lead given to Chris Coleman’s men by Gareth Bale’s 35-yard free-kick was wiped out shortly after the restart, with Vardy restoring parity before fellow substitute Sturridge notched a memorable stoppage-time winner.
The 2-1 victory in Lens means progress to the knockout stages will be assured should England get a point from their final group game against Slovakia – a match for which there is an understandably clamour for the duo to start.
Sturridge’s place in the 23-man squad had been in doubt due to a calf complaint during the preparation camp, but the Liverpool striker repaid his manager in spades at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis.
“He’s a special player, there’s no doubt about that,” Hodgson said.
“Since he’s got back from that injury situation, he did have a very settled period of play when he played on a regular basis and he just picked up that injury in the Europa League final.
“But I’m pleased for him because he had that injury, there was speculation, and questions if he was the right player to be in the 23, should he go and I’m delighted that I showed confidence in him because he’s not let me down very often.”
Sturridge and Vardy are part of a bold, attack-heavy squad, giving Hodgson a variety of quality options in France.
Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane have so far struggled to get going in the front three in which Adam Lallana has impressed, with the England manager’s half-time changes perhaps showing the path to success in France.
“I think it would be harsh to say,” Hodgson said when asked if he had arrived at this team through circumstance. “I know what you’re saying.
“Harry and Raheem did well enough against Russia, we played very, very well but in the first half they showed signs of wear and tear having played that game, so it was quite an easy decision at half time to change it.
“We’ve taken a lot of attacking players with us on this occasion so the options are there.
“I’m looking behind me on the bench and thinking: ‘Who do I want? Do I want Sturridge on? Vardy? Rashford?’ Can I bring someone on in midfield to manipulate the ball, etc, which I’m hoping in the future could be very useful for us going further in the tournament?’
“Players have to prove their worthiness to some extent and sometimes the ones that you are convinced about before the tournament because they will be a big hitter for you turn out not to be.
“And someone who you might just be playing a part in helping you do well, he turns out to be the big hitter.”
As for Sturridge himself, he does not feel the need to press the case with words, having done his ‘talking’ out on the pitch.
“It is the manager’s decision to choose the team and pick whatever team he feels is best,” he said.
“I will just go out on the training pitch and try and give my best. The competition for places is just like it is at club level and we are all helping each other to perform as well as we can.”
Adam Lallana has been another one to impress – in both games – although he was more keen to sing the praises of his Liverpool team-mate who scored the vital winner in Lens.
“He showed what a vital player he is for us,” said Lallana. “He’s always involved, he’s a big player, involved in big moments and that summed him up against Wales.
“He was looking very dangerous against Wales which is great for us. He had a couple of sighters, but he doesn’t need too many chances before he gets his name on the scoresheet.”
Vardy and Sturridge certainly landed big blows in Lens, while fellow substitute Marcus Rashford was involved in some nice moments against Wales.
The 18-year-old striker usurped captain Wayne Rooney as England’s youngest-ever player to feature at a European Championship and is helping to challenge the more experienced members of the squad.
“Rashford has been very good in training,” Hodgson added. “Very lively but of course he’s new to us – the way we try to play, the way we try to attack and defend.
“He’s picking that up every day but what he has got is an incredibly good technique for a very young player. He’s not scared at all. He’s had a happy day and there will be unhappy days, go back to the hotel and enjoy it.”