LONDON (AFP) – From the “hated one” to the hero of Manchester City’s record-setting run, Raheem Sterling has come a long way in the last 18 months.
When Sterling arrived for pre-season training with City, the England winger faced an uncertain future amid talk Arsenal wanted to sign him as part of a deal that would send Alexis Sanchez to Manchester.
Being mooted as a makeweight in a deal that eventually fell through was hardly an encouraging sign for Sterling, who had struggled to live up to the hype after his £45 million ($60 million) move from Liverpool in 2015.
But Sterling has flipped the script so effectively that he is now firmly established as one of City’s key men as they chase Premier League and Champions League glory.
Sterling has become so essential to City’s success that when his team face Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League tonight, he could find himself in the privileged position of being rested by Pep Guardiola ahead of Sunday’s crunch derby clash at title rivals Manchester United.
City are already guaranteed to finish as winners of Group F and with an eight-point lead over United in the league, Guardiola is likely to prioritise the Manchester derby.
Few would criticise Guardiola for wrapping Sterling in cotton wool after his incredible form helped City win a record-equalling 13 successive league games and establish an all-competitions unbeaten run of 28 matches.
The 22-year-old’s last-gasp winner against Southampton last week was his 13th goal of the campaign, taking him past his total for last season in just under four months.
That goal was his third late deciding goal in as many games after winning matches against Feyenoord and Huddersfield with similar strikes.
Aware that Real Madrid have been linked with Sterling in the past, City are determined to ensure he remains at the Eastlands.
Sterling has two years left on the £180,000-per-week deal he signed in 2015.
But City’s Abu Dhabi-based owners are reported to be lining up a £300,000-per-week contract that would make him the Premier League’s highest paid player.
Should Sterling sign that deal, it would complete a remarkable reversal of fortune for a player who became a target for social media abuse during his acrimonious departure from Liverpool and again following England’s Euro 2016 exit.
Sterling found himself targeted by England fans after an embarrassing Euro 2016 defeat against Iceland, and he even branded himself the “hated one”.
Guardiola’s troubled trophy-less first season at City was a further burden as Sterling battled to make his mark in a squad packed with world-class attacking talent.
He emerged from that torrid period thanks to a helping hand from Guardiola, who insisted the youngster must limit his social media presence and focus on his career instead.
“He’s a nice guy, loved in the locker room, stable, less into social media, more focussed on football and his private life. That’s good,” Guardiola said recently.
Yet Guardiola refuses to take credit for Sterling’s resurgence, praising the player for knuckling down and maximising the potential he showed with Liverpool.
“I didn’t discover Raheem. He did that at Liverpool, he played amazing. That’s why City paid a lot of money,” he said.
“I don’t feel guilty if he’s not playing good and at the same time I don’t feel responsibility for Raheem playing good. All the credit goes to him.”