It should have been Raheem Sterling’s crowning achievement as a Manchester City player. The third minute stoppage in a Champions League quarter-final, to the same end as the historic winner Sergio Aguero all these years ago.
City needed more to overtake Tottenham on the most dramatic night in European history. As he does so often, Sterling found it for them. His hat-trick, scuttled beyond Hugo Lloris, sent them to the semi-finals.
At that point, a close friend who was watching in Los Angeles embarked on a crazy mid-afternoon celebration on its boulevard in the scorching west coast sun. On his return, the air had turned cold, the Etihad stage had long since passed from pandemonium to perplexity. Aguero was offside on the comeback. The city was out.
Raheem Sterling believed he sent Manchester City back to semi-final last season
The England star looked dejected after his last goal was ruled offside by VAR
Sterling’s colossal effort would be forgotten, though the pain of that night of last year lingered. He said the loss in away goals by Spurs – the draw ended 4-4 overall – was “the worst night of my life”. He was not himself for three days, finding the overwhelming disappointment hard to shake.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that he recently asked BT Sport to provide full footage of this quarter-final. Sterling wanted to look into it ahead of last week’s triumph over Real Madrid to find inspiration, to exploit the sense of loss. For him, reliving this process is a motivational tool. He diligently notes practice observations and game clips on the iPhone notes and it’s fair to assume that this page was full when reviewing the Spurs tie.
He calmly scored the first game against Real, his sixth of the competition. Lyon are next in the last eight on Saturday and only victory will do for a club that have only reached a semi-final in eight attempts so far – and never under Pep Guardiola.
Sterling was still referring to the Spurs three months later as he sat in a simple conference room inside a posh hotel in downtown Hong Kong during the preseason.
Sterling used last season’s disappointment as motivation to defeat Real Madrid last week
“There have been decisions beyond our control in Europe, which is why we pulled out, but this competition is an area where we can improve,” he said, speaking more about the goal. key to Fernando Llorente, who City claimed had come out of the striker’s hand, as the offside decision.
He said the words “improve” or “better” 13 times in nine minutes – even when talking about his own goals. Sterling’s course had been the best of his career, 25 club goals for the very first time. That would have been 26 and would have just gotten him past the one in two threshold if VAR hadn’t spotted Aguero’s offense.
Fast forward 12 months and the continued refinement is frightening. This will be the first year since Aguero signed from Atletico Madrid in 2011 that the Argentine has not finished top scorer. His record remains exceptional – 23 goals in 32 games – yet City have found the man who assumes this responsibility in his absence, as evidenced by the Restart project.
Sterling is heading into the Champions League ‘final tournament’ with 31 club goals in 51 appearances, another big leap in performance. Lionel Messi (50), Robert Lewandowski (54) and Kylian Mbappe (44) were the only men in Europe to score more than Sterling’s 43 goals for club and country in 2019.
Sterling has been on fire this season and is the club’s top scorer with 31 goals in 51 games
Just before the start of the season, Sterling has set himself the goal of three separate trebles for City and England, plus an overall total of between 35 and 45. He sits at 35 with three potentially pivotal games for his. career.
He netted his third hat-trick at Brighton last month. He had demanded an increase in the number of “important goals” and has scored the opener 12 times since.
Moreover, the 25-year-old, still not in his prime, has his eyes on a City record. No player has hit more than 34 in a season since Franny Lee recorded 35 – almost half of which were penalties – in 1972. Aguero’s best score was 33, recorded in Guardiola’s first campaign. .
Since then Sterling has 23, 25 and now 31. And he’s keenly aware that those numbers could rise dramatically in the future if he gets even calmer. Sterling has had six missed chances in the last few matches where he hesitated. If these come in more regularly, the kind of chances Sterling knows he’s over-thinking, then he’s entering a realm that no English player has ever really hit.
There will be conversations with those whose advice he implicitly relies on during the short preseason, which centers on further clarification in front of goal.
Sterling needs four goals to become the first City player to score 35 goals in a season since Franny Lee
The bar continues to rise, but sterling’s finish continues to be called into question despite the chilling numbers. But unlike early in his career, when social media critics gnawed at him, Sterling likes to prove a point. And this is due to a change in mentality. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this happened, but those who know him say the forward’s attitude is more like that of the dreaded Queens Park Rangers teenager, largely forgetting the complications and ramifications of the sport. competition.
“There is no player who thinks he is at his best,” he said in Hong Kong in a room with raised eyebrows. “It’s what drives us to do great things.
It’s certainly conceivable that Sterling could fit into the City legend over the next two weeks.