Struggling Raheem Sterling has much to prove – for club and country
It is far too early to be talking about the fall of Raheem Sterling, a player whose contributions to Manchester City and England have been priceless. Yet as we begin to look ahead to the European Championship there is no denying he is facing a challenge to retain his value.
Had the Euros been held last summer, as planned, Sterling would have gone into the tournament vital to England’s chances.
A year on, he will make Gareth Southgate’s 23-man squad, but that is about as much as many expect from him.
At his club, Sterling is no longer starting in the big games, with Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden now preferred by Pep Guardiola. If Sterling is in the first XI in the Carabao Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur this weekend, it will be a surprise.
The latter may well start ahead of him for England too, something that was unthinkable 12 months ago. Foden has, in many people’s eyes, overtaken Sterling, ignoring the fact that there is no reason why they could not start in the same international team, even if they have not done regularly for their club this year.
“Build them and knock them down” will be the irritable response from former players who know too well what it is like to go through such public judgement, but that does not make our concern unjustified.
Sterling was one of Southgate’s blue-chip brigade. If Sterling played well, the chances are, England would do too. In terms of importance, perhaps only captain Harry Kane came before him.
Last season, Sterling, as he had been for most of Guardiola’s time at City, was in superb form, even while they relinquished their Premier League title to Liverpool.
The fact City are set to reclaim it in a season in which they have also reached the Champions League semi-finals for the first time under Guardiola, with Sterling no longer relied upon to contribute so heavily, has been one of the stranger aspects of their success.
Sterling has, by his and his manager’s admission, found things tough this term. There are many reasons for that, a variety of possible explanations, but there is no question Sterling’s star shines a little less brightly.
Nobody has been able to offer an entirely persuasive argument as to why. After all, players go through testing periods, even the very best.
Indeed, the former Liverpool winger may well be one of those who has found it difficult to play in empty stadiums, week after week. Some need a live audience to impress; they require the shot of adrenaline that comes with performing in front of a crowd.
“Raheem is an extraordinary player,” said Guardiola, when asked if he still believed Sterling could star for England at the Euros.
“Always was, is and always will be. As to what will happen with his international manager in the summer, I’m sorry, I am not involved. I would love it [ if he was a star of the Euros]. I would like that for him.
“I’ve said this many times. The reason he is not [having the same impact this season] playing games as regular as he was in previous seasons is that Riyad and Phil, they are in top, top form. They are scoring goals, playing really well.
“That is the only reason he has not been in the team but the opportunities, they are going to come. And he has to be ready to show his quality, show the incredible strengths that he has.”
Asked what he could do to help the player regain form, Guardiola gave a glimpse of irritation.
“The only way I can phrase it ‘let him play’,” he said with a shrug. “It’s the only way and after it depends on them. It is not about confidence, they have our confidence, if not they won’t be here and after a few seasons, you can not imagine [Sterling not being here].
“The quality with Raheem is there. It is not a case where we have a conversation, he has no confidence and after talking with me he is confident. They are top-class players and they have to take confidence for himself [sic], inside themselves. It is a way to show how good they are. It is the only secret.
“The manager just has an idea how they want to play. After they have to show every time they have the quality. Our confidence is absolutely there but I have to make a selection.”
Southgate does not appear to have been overly influenced by Sterling’s form for his club. He started both World Cup qualifiers against San Marino and Albania last month, but it is not only Foden who is a threat to that.
Borussia Dortmund duo Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham can also play in the same position, as can Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish.
They are both team-mates and rivals, that is the nature of international football, especially when a major tournament is on the horizon.
Sterling has much to prove between now and England’s opening group game against Croatia on June 13. A return to form, whether he starts or comes off the bench, against Spurs would be the ideal way to raise his stock again.