By Nick Mashiter, PA
Gareth Southgate backed Raheem Sterling to recover from his nightmare season – after leaving him out of his latest England squad.
The Chelsea forward will miss the Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia next month.
Southgate spoke with Sterling last week with the 28-year-old battling a hamstring problem and admitting he had not hit top form.
But, despite his omission, Southgate expects one of his star players to rediscover his spark.
“I will always back him to respond strongly and have the resilience and tenacity to prove himself,” he said.
“He said himself he’s not been happy with how it’s been but that will be a temporary thing.
“He really wasn’t in consideration. We didn’t get to the point of whether he should be in or out. He doesn’t think he’s operating on the level he needs.
“He’s an important part of our group and that remains the same. But he is in an area of the pitch where players are playing well for their clubs and playing well when they are playing for us.
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“The dynamic is different from maybe two-to-three years ago. We had four or five players who were almost guaranteed to be in the team. Now we’ve got competition pretty much everywhere.
“But he has shown time and again for us that he has been an important player. His mental toughness stands out in why I would expect him to come up at a good level.”
Sterling has struggled for form and fitness since a £47.5million move from Manchester City last summer.
He has scored nine goals in 37 appearances in Chelsea’s chaotic season which has seen them sack Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter with Frank Lampard in interim charge since April.
They travel to Manchester United on Thursday and host Newcastle in Sunday’s final game of the season. Chelsea will finish in the bottom half of the Premier League despite owner Todd Boehly spending almost £600million.
“I found him (Sterling) positive, strong and understanding with what’s gone on. It’s been difficult for everyone with all the changes this year. Three different managers, three different ways of training, three different ways of playing,” said Southgate.
“There was a lot of upheaval. Clubs have these moments. There have been a couple of clubs who haven’t been where they want to be this year.
“That will be even more intense next year. They won’t have any European football so will have a game a week. I think they’ll be really strong next season and certainly he’ll be a big part of it.
“I can’t see a scenario where Chelsea aren’t in the top six next year. It has been really difficult for all the managers this year but that will calm down over the summer and they have an outstanding squad. They are going to have a good season and he’ll be fundamental to that.”
Meanwhile, Southgate remains hopeful Jude Bellingham will be fit for the game in Malta on June 16 and against North Macedonia in Manchester on June 19.
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder missed Sunday’s 3-0 victory at Augsburg with a knee problem he suffered in the 5-2 win over Borussia Monchengladbach and is a doubt for Saturday’s final game against Mainz.
Dortmund are two points clear of Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga, hunting their first title since 2012.
Southgate added: “He will be doing everything he can to be available for this weekend. Whether he will win that race we don’t know yet but I would have thought there is enough time for our games but we don’t know for sure.”