Two lost souls must reignite careers: Neil Humphreys
Kane, Sterling's dip in form suggests new clubs are needed
Naturally, they were substituted together, just to underline the symbolism for anyone not paying attention.
Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling left a dire game on a grim night, having struggled to lift either. Euro 2020 already seems like a long time ago.
The problem, in both instances, is Pep Guardiola.
The Manchester City manager wanted one desperately. He lost faith in the other. Neither footballer has been the same since.
Kane staggers from one nondescript showing to another, like he's lost in the Night of the Living Dead Transfer, still struggling to forget his unrequited love for City.
He drifts in a superstar's purgatory, too good for current club Tottenham Hotspur, too expensive for City and too peripheral for his country.
Kane managed only 19 touches in England's tedious 1-1 draw against Hungary yesterday morning (Singapore time). As usual, he spent too much time facing the wrong way, wandering into the wrong positions and playing the wrong game.
Post-match analysis focused on the alleged loss of a yard of pace, which may or may not be true for a 28-year-old who was considered the most accomplished No. 9 in world football just a year ago. As a yard of pace goes, this one has allegedly vanished with alarming haste.
But that misses the point. On the same day, a tanned freak scored another international hat-trick, four months before his 37th birthday.
An energy-efficient Cristiano Ronaldo continues to adapt his game to suit his body. Kane still chases a game that doesn't suit his talent.
He's not a No. 10. And yet, he still drops deep, in search of possession, goals, validation, salvation or heaven knows what. Only the lack of goals are conclusive.
Failing to score for the first time in 15 consecutive qualifiers was hardly catastrophic, but failing to find the net in the English Premier League this season is more troubling, particularly when the same tics are in evidence.
Hovering around central midfield, chasing lost causes, holding up play and slowing the game have all been blots in Kane's copybook - for club and country - for a while now.
He almost got away with it, thanks to those pesky kids taking England to the Euro 2020 final, but what was a sneaky suspicion then feels like a racing certainty now. Kane should've gone to the Etihad.
And maybe Sterling should've headed for the exit.
His development and maturity under Guardiola's tutelage are not in question. The Three Lions owe Guardiola for the Spaniard's role in taking a cocky kid from Liverpool and turning him into a dependable England performer.
Sterling scored England's first three goals at Euro 2020. His place was assured, his confidence absolute. But his decision-making in key moments has never quite reached a similar consistency, a fact that has troubled Guardiola and was noticeable against the Hungarians.
A header was nearly put away. The rebound was nearly dispatched. He nearly found Kane with a cross. And Guardiola's patience for "nearly men" is well documented.
Sterling has started just three games in the EPL and Champions League, scoring only once in 10 appearances for City (against lowly Norwich City). His confidence appears fragile.
From bulletproof with England to brittle with City, the 26-year-old's uncertainty has spilled over from club to country. He attempted more shots (three) and completed more dribbles (four) than any of his teammates against Hungary, but that lack of conviction in game-changing moments was back. It's such a shame.
Such an inspiring voice for his generation at Euro 2020, Sterling deserves more than bench time and early substitutions at such a pivotal juncture.
Potential suitors are emerging as contract talks reportedly stall in a story that needs a happy ending. The same could be said for Kane.
After an off-night, both men probably expected a premature, anti-climactic end to their World Cup qualifier.
But their careers should not go the same way.