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THE cross is perfect. The ball rolls across the six-yard line. An open goal beckons, inviting the easiest of finishes. Raheem Sterling cannot miss.
In a Champions League contest defined by the tiniest of moments, the Manchester City forward has all the time in the world. He cannot miss.
But he does. His side foot turns into a sand wedge. The goal becomes a bunker. The chipped effort clears the crossbar, from six yards, defying all expectations. The ball spins over the empty goal. Cue Celine Dion. "My Heart Will Go On" plays over subsequent replays.
It’s the theme from "Titanic" and it’s funny. The YouTube clip is genuinely funny. But there are so many of them, the greatest hits of Sterling’s misses, compilations of howlers and fluffed sitters, a long list of memes to entertain the haters.
And there are always haters when it comes to Sterling. That’s the uncomfortable bit.
At Euro 2020, they emerged from their dim crevices, eager to pile on the politically-aware footballer for taking the knee. So they booed him. They jeered one of their own. He took the knee in protest against racial discrimination. They took umbrage. They booed their England player until he became England’s best player, scoring the nation’s first three goals with a number of Man-of-the-Match performances.
Sterling was judged differently. After his superlative efforts against Croatia, he was asked if his heroics had justified his selection. His brief, wide-eyed response betrayed his astonishment. His measured comments underlined his class. Harry Kane never gets asked such questions.
But the forward has seemingly been treated differently for years, forced to work harder to be respected and embraced. Even now.
According to the fan forums and social media platforms, admittedly not the most balanced of opinion barometers, Chelsea fans are not overly enthused by reports of the forward heading to Stamford Bridge for a rumoured fee of £60 million (S$102 million).
The price tag buys England’s most dependable footballer at their last major tournament, a forward with four Premier League titles, 109 goals and 77 assists across 320 games for Manchester City, and a 27-year-old supposedly closing in on his prime.
And still, Sterling comes with a question mark, an asterisk, an element of risk or uncertainty, when it matters.
Sterling comes with a question mark, an asterisk, an element of risk or uncertainty, when it matters.
It certainly mattered against Lyon in the Champions League in 2020, when the ball was beautifully caressed towards him, along the six-yard line. But he blazed over.
The miss was dreadful, worthy of a "Titanic" mashup on YouTube.
But players miss. The law of averages prevails. But so does perception, often trumping reality. Type the words “Raheem”, “Sterling” and “misses” to see what distorted perception looks like.
He’s the Mr Bean of the penalty box, a bit of a joke, a jittery, overexcited mess of jelly legs and premature execution, like a fumbling teenager on a first date. He can’t control himself.
His stats indicate otherwise. He averages 0.34 league goals per match, a decent return for a forward who typically cuts inside or arrives at the end of one of City’s pinball moves. He’s knocked in 68 goals with his dominant right foot, 30 with his left and thumped in 11 headers, not a bad spread for a diminutive footballer.
Add in the 77 assists and City have something bearing a close resemblance to the complete package. And, contrary to the sneering YouTube compilations, his shooting accuracy isn’t too shabby. According to the Guardian, Sterling hovers around 41 per cent, not quite as high as Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden, but not far off either.
Even last season, when Sterling slipped down Guardiola’s pecking order, the City forward still chipped in with a reasonable 17 goals in all competitions, albeit in a side that scores a lot of goals, with or without the Englishman.
City always score goals, just not enough in the critical stages of a competition that matters most to their owners. The Champions League, perhaps the most clinical cleanser in a sportswashing enterprise, continues to elude them. In the knockout stages, games are typically won in the smallest of margins, where Sterling does not always flourish.
Across six years of Guardiola’s tuition and guidance, Sterling progressed from being a quick, tricksy winger into a mature, regular supplier of goals for serial league champions.
But he was left on the bench for both legs of the Champions League semi-final.
Sterling wasn’t trusted enough to deliver in those smallest of margins. In a long, exhausting battle of attrition against wily, experienced opponents, one chance needed to be enough. A rare glimpse of goal had to be utilised. There could be no half measures with half chances.
Sterling was not considered the man for the biggest occasion.
That cruel defeat against Real Madrid seemed to break something in Guardiola, his trust in existing personnel at the very least. His Jack Grealish gamble after missing out on Kane hadn’t paid off. He needed a decisive presence in Erling Haaland immediately and added Julian Alvarez for the long term. He no longer needs Sterling.
Like Grealish, or Mahrez, or even Gabriel Jesus until recently, Sterling had enough against cannon fodder like Norwich City, but not enough for the bruisers at the Bernabéu.
At 27, he looks like the oldest - and most successful - nearly man, the footballer with everything, but nothing left to offer the exacting Guardiola. He’s still responding to that same question in the same way.
After his brilliance for England against Croatia, he replied: “Have I justified my selection?” He repeated the question, still taking in the daftness of the enquiry.
“I’m trying,” he said finally. It’s been a career-long endeavour.
He’s still trying, to win over sceptics, to justify his selection, position and worthiness, which seems a grossly unfair proposition for a refined footballer of his age and accomplishments.
But elite football is unfair. The defeat against Real Madrid was unfair.
For Guardiola, the only scenario to ponder is the one dipped in cliché. It’s the final minute of a tense contest. The scores are level. There’s something silver and shiny at stake.
And Sterling breaks free of tiring legs.
He’s through on goal, with enough time to make a decision on shot selection and placement. Do you back him to finish, every time?
Sadly, Guardiola doesn’t. And that’s probably all that matters.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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