Not too long ago, Raheem Sterling’s routes back into Pep Guardiola’s first-team looked blocked and his Manchester City future appeared bleak.
Sterling had failed to bring his dazzling Euro 2020 form with England back into the club environment and his capacity to operate across all three of the forward positions was not exactly doing him any favours.
On the right-wing, Gabriel Jesus was enjoying a renaissance and Riyad Mahrez was banging in the goals in the Champions League.
Jack Grealish had settled into life on the left flank, with Phil Foden’s mastery of that position threatening to be just as problematic to Sterling as it had been during the closing months of last season.
Ferran Torres had usurped Raheem as Guardiola’s go-to option when he wanted to play a natural winger as a conventional striker, then there was the parade of various false nines.
It was hard to make a case for Sterling to resume his central role in the Guardiola era as scoreless appearances stacked up and confidence drained.
But if there has been one constant in the ups and downs of an incredible career, it is Sterling’s sheer bloody-minded determination. It can make his bad performances worse because he is a player who never hides, even if things aren’t coming off. He will always go back to the well.
Pep Guardiola hailed Raheem Sterling’s performance against Aston Villa
(Image: Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images)
At times during Wednesday’s 2-1 win at Aston Villa, this quality made life a nightmare for home right-back Matty Cash, who stuck doggedly to his task.
Sterling might have scored in three consecutive appearances against Club Brugge, Everton and Paris Saint-Germain recently, but that just felt like a launchpad for this.
For the first time in a long time, the 26-year-old was setting the tone, driving City forward and pinning defenders onto the back foot. He felt vital again.
“I’d like to praise Raheem Sterling, the best game for a long time,” Guardiola said afterwards.
“Hopefully he can continue this way. He was a threat for us and deserves all my compliments. Sensational.”
Sterling’s return to top form is particularly timely given, for the first time in a long time, his future is not the leading piece of Manchester City transfer gossip.
City could face a Barcelona raid for Torres in January
(Image: (Photo by Manchester City FC/Manchester City FC via Getty Images ))
A lack of progress in contract talks, with his deal expiring at the end of next season and Raheem’s previously stated desire to play in Spain, have all contributed to Barcelona being heavily linked to the former Liverpool youngster.
All that changed on Friday, when the Blaugrana’s courting of Torres became public knowledge.
Maybe it doesn’t feel great that he is no longer Catalonia’s most wanted, but if Ferran is tempted to try his hand with the La Liga giants, then it is just one fewer complication for Sterling to navigate in Manchester.
No doubt the Spain youngster has exciting and boundless potential but it does a disservice to one of City’s finest players of the modern era to say he would be a bigger loss than Sterling.
Ferran promises great days ahead but his older teammate deals in cold, hard returns and titles. His assist for Ruben Dias’ unlikely opener was one of five chances he created at Villa Park and marked 150 Premier League goal involvements, a haul comprised of 98 goals and 52 assists.
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Then there are Torres’ reported reasons for wanting to join Barcelona, including a sense that first-team opportunities might come more easily at Camp Nou. True, they probably will, but as Sterling and others have shown, a place in this Manchester City team is something worth fighting for.
Even if he is not completely happy with his lot, Sterling will never allow himself to shirk those hard yards. As Bernardo Silva, Rodri and Joao Cancelo enjoy wonderful seasons – shining examples of how downturns and misplaced form need not spell the end under Guardiola – it is nice to have Raheem back in the team and firing.
It has not come easily, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
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