Raheem Sterling’s Saturday night hat-trick against Norwich City were his first goals of 2022. For a player who has worked hard over the last few seasons to add a scoring string to his impressive bow, it is a bit odd it has taken him about a month-and-a-half to find the back of the net.
That’s not to say he has not been influential in the new year. Far from it. Just last week, he won a penalty that allowed Riyad Mahrez to open the scoring in the victory over Brentford. He was a diligent presence in the most important win over 2022 so far against Chelsea, too, and on 1 January against Arsenal. Just as it was at Carrow Road, he played from start to finish in both victories worth the same number of points as this one here, but carried far more jeopardy. Like Kevin De Bruyne, he could have spent the game on the bench against Norwich and, with all due respect, Manchester City would have still won comfortably.
But having spent 2021 on the periphery, time on the field matters. If you allow us to consider Bernardo Silva a midfielder, no City forward has played more than Sterling’s 1,423 Premier League minutes this season, or bettered his 15 starts. He is also now their top scorer with 10.
You only need to rewind back to October when what is outlined above seemed unthinkable. Sterling was out of favour with Pep Guardiola, openly considering his options which exclusively lay abroad. The talk was of Barcelona, initially on loan in January ahead of a move at the end of the season, by which point Sterling would have just a year remaining on his contract. Real Madrid were also keeping tabs. Whatever would transpire, it felt an unedifying way for seven fruitful seasons for both player and club to come to an end.
Now, there is a distinctly different feel. Sterling may still move on in the summer: as it stands, City are confident he will sign on. Yet he has reiterated his worth to the team during a period in which they have gone 15 games unbeaten. And he has Guardiola purring once again.
“He was confident and aggressive, direct,” beamed Guardiola after Saturday’s 4-0 win. “He made a fantastic goal, the second one he was there and he has been incredibly important for all these seasons.
“The amount of goals and assists, especially being involved in a long career. When he is confident, he is a really, really important player.”
Sterling is the latest example of how City have solved every problem they have encountered so far this season. It’s as much down to the management as those in a decorated squad who, beyond their individual quality, have the kind of elite mindset that simply cannot accept failure.
When the protracted courting of Harry Kane came to nothing, a lack of recognised striker was supposed to hinder their title defence. Indeed it did – for a bit – when defeat to Crystal Palace at the end of October had them third, five points off leaders Chelsea. And yet here they are with 61 goals for all areas – the same as free-scoring Liverpool who they hold a nine-point lead over, having played one match more.
There are 13 matches still to play, but Premier League number six seems inevitable. And though nothing can be taken for granted, the bigger conundrum to address in what remains of the 2021/22 campaign is one they have yet to solve.
City’s Champions League odyssey begins its latest chapter on Tuesday in Lisbon, as they face Sporting in the first leg of the round-of-16. At this point there is no need to reiterate how much success in this competition means to the players, manager, the City Football Group and their Abu Dhabi paymasters. But after defeat in last year’s final, there seems a greater sensitivity around the European Cup-shaped hole in their recently refurbished trophy cabinet.
De Bruyne, Rodri and Joao Cancelo were kept wrapped up on the weekend with the continental excursion in mind. And it was not lost on City’s hierarchy that while their team were going through the motions in Norfolk, Chelsea were going global under their noses in the United Arab Emirates. Their victory in the Club World Cup was confirmed shortly before Sterling made it 4-0.
Even given the way European teams look down at the trophy itself, it is a statement piece for those at the uppermost point of the football pyramid. An extra bit of validation to say you are the best in the world, even if, as is the case with Chelsea, you are not even the best in your own country.
A penny for City’s thoughts: would they swap places with Chelsea – trail them by 16 points for a Champions League and world title? Probably not. And those who would are unlikely to admit as much in public.
The real question is how do you translate sustained league dominance into sustained continental glory? With the Premier League bubbling along nicely, now seems a good a time as any for Guardiola and his charges to figure out that answer.