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Sergio Aguero had just concluded his emotional speech to team-mates in the dressing room after Manchester City’s stunning 4-2 victory over Napoli in southern Italy on Wednesday when Raheem Sterling’s phone beeped.
“I’m not talking to you for two days #monster”, read the text from a close associate. Sterling smiled. The England forward had just displayed another “monster” performance, bagged his 10th goal of the campaign for City, placing him ahead of Aguero as the club’s top scorer and rendered the narrative that dictated he would be the fall-guy among Pep Guardiola’s surfeit of attacking stars invalid. The message was symbolic – there was no need to make noise because Sterling is making all the noise on the pitch with his exemplary display of skills, an increasingly indispensable cog in a relentless attacking wheel that is one goal short of a half century after just 16 games this season.
The story is apt because Man City host Arsenal on Sunday just 67 days after reports surfaced that Sterling is being potentially used as a makeweight in a deal to lure Alexis Sanchez away from the Gunners.
There are different stories regarding what transpired between the two clubs in the final 72 hours of that chaotic summer transfer window but Sanchez’s proposed £60 million move fell through and, City denied all suggestion of being willing to release Sterling from his contract at the Etihad Stadium.
City is still interested in Sanchez, but it is not a certainty that they will once again make a move for him again in January or next summer when the Chilean’s contract with Arsenal expires. City will have no choice but to retain Sterling if he continues to produce powerful performances like he has been doing for the past three months.
“If you want this, show me you want this”, Guardiola told Sterling over the summer as he challenged the 22-year-old to improve his finishing and final ball in order to hold down a regular first-team place and those nine words have become almost a daily calling card in the player’s mind. There are plenty of players who would have questioned their value to Guardiola following the £44 million arrival of Bernardo Silva only five days after the end of last season, the final two games of which Sterling had spent on the substitutes’ bench. “There’s no doubt some players would have reacted to Bernardo coming in, and Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane before that, and resolved that their number was up,” one well-placed City source said. “Raheem did the total opposite. He was never going to run from that fight.”
The Sane factor is interesting. The relationship between the Germany winger, 21, and Sterling is one of the strongest in the City dressing room. They share many common interests, including music and the singer Drake, in particular, but insiders talk about how they support and help to raise each other’s levels on the pitch.
“They’re very close but there’s also this element of them egging each other on,” one City source said. “It’s almost like a mini-competition between them to keep trying to outdo each other.”
It is clearly producing positive results. Sane has registered eight goals to Sterling’s 10 and the pair have been largely unplayable on opposite flanks.
“Every one of those attacking players is smiling but they’re all on egg shells, too, because they know there’s someone waiting to take their place,” another source said. Guardiola underlined as much on Friday when asked about the strides Sterling had taken this season.
“He knows a striker has to score goals and he has to do that if he wants to achieve the next step,” the City manager said. “You won’t survive in the high-level teams in his position if you don’t score goals.”
Sterling no longer looks confused in front of goal. All of his finishes this season have come from inside the penalty area and carried the look of a veteran poacher.
“I think he’s enjoying scoring goals, he’s not scared, he’s not afraid to take a risk,” Guardiola said. According to Guardiola, Mikel Arteta, one of his coaches, has worked tirelessly “specifically on the last action on the pitch – that control in the last moment to make the right movement in the final three or four metres” and credits Sterling with “wanting to stay there, to improve, to practise, to shoot.” Sterling has been encouraged in particular to isolate the full-back as much as possible but also to look to play inside when necessary.
“His final pass still has to improve – he has to do it better,” Guardiola said. “Having more patience to analyse that small gap, and it’s a small gap [to pass through] in the position he is in but the big, big players decide well in those moments. We demand a lot with those kind of players but he is curious and if he improves he will get it, definitely.”