Sterling slump? Man City star returns to Liverpool in toughest moment since he left Anfield
Raheem Sterling goes back to Liverpool and on one hand he has very little to prove to his old club. However, for probably the first time in his Manchester City career, he has to demonstrate that he is still one of the main men for Pep Guardiola.
Anfield has never been a particularly happy environment for Sterling since his acrimonious departure in 2015.
On his first six returns, City lost five and drew the other 0-0 in a dismal game in 2018 that was unrecognisable from the usual exciting, adventurous football associated with Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola sides.
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Then there is the close-range animosity hurled at Sterling from the Anfield stands that are tight to the touchline; his every touched booed, clattering challenges from Andy Robertson and Joe Gomez wildly encouraged and early substitutions celebrated with glee.
His Liverpool misery finally ended last season with his first goal at his former club as City secured their first win at Anfield in 20 attempts.
That 4-1 victory, however, was achieved without supporters in the stadium due to the coronavirus pandemic and the only thing missing is to silence those febrile fans with another major impact.
Yet his recent loss of form suggests it will not happen this Sunday, with the 26-year-old fighting for his place in Guardiola’s thoughts.
Sterling has started just three Premier League and Champions League games this season and, in each, City have failed to score.
In a season when they are essentially playing without a senior striker, after failing to land a centre forward in the summer, it’s more important than ever that all of Guardiola’s forwards contribute.
That is exactly what Sterling has done throughout his City career, answering the chief gripe of his Liverpool critics who insisted that goalscoring was the reason he wouldn’t be a success.
In his 301 appearances for the club, he has scored an impressive 115 goals, including three seasons when he has hit more than 20. Even last season when his form first started to dip, he contributed 14 goals - only fewer than Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden.
But, despite a brilliant Euro 2020, where he would have been a frontrunner for player of the tournament had England managed to land their first trophy in 55 years, the malaise for City has continued into the new season.
There have been small margins that have not gone in Sterling’s favour; a potential last-minute winner against Southampton that was ruled out when his big toe was in an offside position; against Paris Saint-Germain he was denied by a brilliant save from Gianluigi Donnarumma, who tipped his close-range header onto the underside of the bar.
But things aren’t going his way.
In the French capital, he was asked to lead the line with City missing a spearhead and he caused the Ligue 1 opponents problems. As well as his header, he dragged a good effort just wide and mis-controlled when the ball bounced to him from close range. On another night, he could have claimed a hat-trick.
Defeat though has put City’s qualification from the Champions League group stage in slightly more doubt than they have been used to in recent years and the Premier League is set to be a tougher race than ever too, with the four favourites all within a point of each other.
The culminating factor is that any City player underperforming will find themselves on the sidelines with any first-team opportunities needing to be seized.
Sterling has already made four substitute appearances in the Premier League this season, more than in each of his three previous campaigns at the Etihad Stadium.
Part of the reason is due to the increased competition for a starting place with £100 million ($135m) new signing Jack Grealish and Foden performing best in the left wing role that Sterling had made his own.
There are also strong alternatives on the opposite flank with Gabriel Jesus now thriving on the right, rather than through the middle, and Riyad Mahrez challenging for the position.
Undoubtedly Sterling has the potential to take that vacant striker role but Guardiola seemed to hint that the City frontline needed to work harder in their pressing in his post-match analysis from the PSG defeat, particularly in the wake of City’s impressive victory over Chelsea three days earlier when Foden had played as a false-nine.
“We made a really good game, quite similar to Stamford Bridge,” he said. “Maybe we were a bit less aggressive in our first actions because of the quality of players that we have - Gabriel and Phil are more aggressive in terms of this than Raheem and Kevin [De Bruyne] - but in general it was a fantastic game, we did everything. I didn’t see the stats but we created enough chances to score.”
It all adds up to what is probably Sterling’s most difficult period at City which has largely been a period of success and improvement since his move from Liverpool six years ago.
Salvation might be easier to find after Sunday’s huge clash when he joins back up with England - a place where he has produced his most consistent football of 2021 with five goals and two assists in a glorious period for the Three Lions.
With less than two years on his current contract, and suggestions of interest from Spain, there have been questions over his future but City would like to tie him down to a new deal.
Another goal at Anfield would change his short-term outlook and put Sterling back on the rise.