Gareth Southgate has been handed a double boost ahead of England’s World Cup quarter-final against France with Declan Rice returning to training and Raheem Sterling rejoining the squad on Friday.
Telegraph Sport reported on Wednesday night that there was optimism Sterling would fly back to Qatar in time for the France clash and the Football Association confirmed on Thursday that he will arrive at England’s base on Friday – although there is little chance of him featuring heavily in the quarter-final.
There was more positive news for England manager Southgate on Thursday, as Rice, who had missed training through illness on Wednesday, returned to work and was reported to have “felt fine”.
Asked whether or not he was ready to replace Rice if the West Ham United captain is ruled out of the France game, midfielder Kalvin Phillips said: “Yeah, but I believe Dec is fit anyway, he’s back in training today and he felt fine. But if it all goes wrong and Dec won’t be fit then I’d do my best to complete the 90 minutes.”
The fitness of Rice is all the more crucial, given Phillips admitted he has still not returned to full fitness, having recovered from surgery on his shoulder and only made two substitute appearances so far at the World Cup.
“I’m not playing as much, which can be frustrating but when you look at the players that are playing in front of me and how well they are playing, I can’t really argue,” said Phillips.
“I’ve just got to keep working hard and make sure I get fitter and fitter throughout the weeks I’ve been training and when I come on try and make that impact or try and be as solid as I possibly can to help the team.”
Sterling, who celebrated his 28th birthday on Thursday, had been granted compassionate leave to return to England on Sunday after a robbery at his home in Surrey, where his family were staying, and missed the last-16 victory over Senegal.
Although there is virtually no chance of Sterling starting against France and he would most likely only step off the substitutes’ bench in an emergency, having missed almost the entire week of training, his return will still be a positive for Southgate and the rest of the England squad.
An FA statement said: “Raheem Sterling will return to England’s World Cup base in Qatar. The Chelsea forward temporarily left to attend a family matter, but is now expected to rejoin the squad at Al Wakrah on Friday (9 December) ahead of the quarter-final with France.”
Phillips added: “It’s a massive lift, Raheem’s an amazing player and obviously had to fly home with what’s gone on, and we’re just happy that everything’s alright and he can rejoin us.”
Sterling will be able to take a place among the substitutes and give Southgate a full range of options from the bench should England need a goal at any stage against France. He will also be available for the rest of the tournament if England progress to the semi-finals, which could be key.
Callum Wilson missed training on Wednesday with what was described as being a minor strain, which the Newcastle United striker has not fully shaken off.
Sterling made it clear that he would only consider returning to the England squad once he could be confident that his family were safe and well, and after speaking with the police.
Phillips admitted that the robbery on Sterling’s home has caused concern within Southgate’s squad, saying: “I think once one player goes through it there is always that thought in the back of your mind that it might happen to you or it could happen to somebody else. It’s not a really nice feeling when you are so far from home and you have family at home.”