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Raheem Sterling is showing why he is Manchester City's main man
Raheem Sterling scored a hat-trick in Man City's win over Watford
Last Updated: 11/03/19 5:57am
Raheem Sterling scored a hat-trick as Manchester City beat Watford 3-1 on Saturday. Adam Bate was at the Etihad Stadium to see it and believes that this latest match-winning performance shows how underrated Sterling continues to be…
Perhaps it sums up Raheem Sterling's relationship with the media that after scoring a hat-trick in Manchester City's 3-1 win over Watford the first seven minutes of Pep Guardiola's post-match press conference focused on whether the first of those goals was offside.
There was nothing sinister about that. With the score goalless early in the second half, it was a game-changing decision by referee Paul Tierney. But Sterling has developed a knack for changing games himself and the first goal was only part of his match-winning turn.
He was there at the back post to slot home the second soon after. That was testament to his positioning. His hat-trick goal, a confident dink over Ben Foster, highlighted just how much his finishing has improved too. Three goals in 13 minutes and the game was all but over.
His Premier League tally now stands at 15 for the season after finding the net 18 times last term in the team's title-winning campaign. Include assists and he has been directly involved in more City goals than anyone else over the past two seasons, including Sergio Aguero.
It seems strange to think that a player with a Premier League winners' medal, a man with 47 caps for England at the age of 24, could possibly find himself underrated - but how else to explain these numbers? He has either scored or assisted 53 Premier League goals since August 2017 - exactly the same number as the prolific Harry Kane. Only Mohamed Salah has been involved in more goals in that time but nobody can top Sterling this season.
In short, the statistics show that he has developed into the difference maker for the dominant team in the country over the past two years.
They are the numbers of a man maturing and the contrast with Riyad Mahrez, Manchester City's record signing, made for intriguing viewing at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday. Mahrez is striving to make an impact and that showed in his performance - for better and for worse.
It's tough to be too critical when he is in the team precisely because he brings different qualities to this City side. Against Watford, there were a couple of occasions when he almost provided the killer ball. But while Sterling seemed so in tune with his surroundings, it was all a little too desperate when Mahrez got the ball. Just a little too forced.
In the first half, Mahrez's pass completion rate was 75 per cent. Sterling finished the game having completed 97 per cent of his passes. Mahrez gave it away more than twice as often. It was ironic that while one wide forward was trying so hard to make things happen, the man on the other flank, the younger but calmer influence, was the one who actually did.
Not that Guardiola was that impressed. When the conversation did eventually turn to Sterling in the press conference, he had some surprisingly harsh words for the team's match winner. The question concerned the efforts of both Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan.
This was Guardiola's response.
"I think Gundogan made an incredible game," he said. "He is an incredible player in all senses. And Raheem can do better. He scored the three goals, we are delighted. But he can do better. So the first half was not the best performance from Raheem. To score the three goals was important and we need that. But the first half, he can do better."
He may well be right. With Guardiola confirming that he intends to spend at least two more seasons in Manchester, the prospect of him igniting even greater improvement in Sterling is an exciting one. But perhaps the time has passed for us to speak about this player in terms of potential. This is no longer about what Sterling could become, it's about what he is.
Manchester City have many assets. It's a squad packed with icons such as Aguero, Vincent Kompany and David Silva. There is the imperious Kevin De Bruyne. Fans marvel at Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane too, while excitement grows about what Phil Foden could achieve.
But Sterling, in his own way, now leads the way. He makes the difference when it matters. He scores a hat-trick, his first in three-and-a-half years, and yet nobody walks away from the Etihad Stadium too surprised by it any more. That's just what Raheem Sterling does.
Nothing can be allowed to obscure or overshadow his talent now.