Forget about Raheem Sterling tripping himself up and still winning a penalty. He’s no longer the fall-guy at Manchester City.
In fact, the oft-criticized winger has become one of the most appreciated and important members of Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking side and might be in the form of his career heading into the Manchester derby on Sunday.
Take, for example, Sterling’s contributions for City over the past week: He set up Riyad Mahrez’s winning goal at Tottenham 10 days ago, he scored two goals and set up three more in a 6-1 victory over Southampton on Sunday, then curled in the goal of the night in City’s 6-0 thrashing of Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Of course, Sterling was in the spotlight for other reasons against Shakhtar. In one of the most farcical of refereeing decisions, Sterling was awarded a penalty despite kicking the turf and tumbling over under no pressure from a defender.
Otherwise, he barely put a foot wrong in the match, constantly tormenting Shakhtar’s defence with his movement and pace. His finish for the goal — a curling 20-meter shot into the top corner after bursting through two defenders — spoke volumes for his confidence and frame of mind, even after the embarrassment of the earlier penalty decision.
"The first season," Guardiola said, "he was scared. He was looking and thinking, ‘Who is the guy I am going to pass the ball to?"’
Now, his decision-making and poise in the opposition’s penalty box is much improved. It has a lot to do with the faith put in him by Guardiola and the work City’s assistant coach, Mikel Arteta, has done with Sterling on the practice field. Specifically, according to Guardiola, "the last action on the pitch, that control in the last moment."
That was something for which Sterling was heavily criticized during the World Cup, when he squandered a slew of one-on-one chances while virtually playing as a striker in a 5-3-2 formation. His well-taken goals for England in a 3-2 win against Spain in the UEFA Nations League last month were his first for his country in three years — making for a goal drought of 27 games.
He has been a frequent scorer for City under Guardiola, though. He is already up to seven this season, backing up his career-best haul of 23 from last season.
Playing mostly as a right winger, Sterling has scored many goals from far-post tap-ins following crosses from the left, mostly from Leroy Sane — a pre-planned move that City works hard on in training.
This season, Guardiola has often chosen to deploy Sterling as an inside forward on the left, mainly to accommodate the forward runs of fit-again left back Benjamin Mendy, and it has led to the forward scoring other types of goals where he cuts in from the left with the ball at his feet and finds the far corner. He has done just that against Arsenal, Newcastle and now Shakhtar.
In Anthony Martial, United also has a flourishing winger with a new lease on life now that he appears to be more appreciated by his manager. The 22-year-old Frenchman has scored in each of his last four Premier League games and is now someone Jose Mourinho feels he can finally rely on.
With City always looking to play offensively under Guardiola and Mourinho now realizing attack might be United’s best form of defence in light of his error-strewn backline, there is a decent chance this latest derby could be a thrilling watch.
City hasn’t lost all season and is at the top of the Premier League. United has returned to form and will arrive at Etihad Stadium off a 2-1 win at Juventus in the Champions League.
If there are goals, expect Sterling and Martial to be among them.