Raheem Sterling has proved he is Man City’s master hex-breaker and can end Manchester derby woe – Dominic Farrell
Exasperation isn’t normally an emotion indulged by Raheem Sterling, the relentless and resilient Manchester City and England forward.
Yet there it was, just after a long-held career dream had been realised.
“I’ve always said, if I played at Wembley in a major tournament I’m scoring. At Wembley, my back garden, I had to score,” the north Londoner told BBC Sport after netting the only goal in England’s Euro 2020 opener against Croatia last summer.
Sterling’s form for City at the end of the 2020/21 campaign had led to his place in Gareth Southgate’s first XI coming under scrutiny. When this was put to him, his forehead still slick with sweat after a moment of immense personal triumph, raised eyebrows and an eventual grin didn’t quite hide his frustration.
“Have I justified my selection?” he said, repeating the question before a long pause. “I’m trying, trying…”
The Croatia goal was a launchpad for a superb individual tournament for Sterling, who also broke the deadlock in wins over the Czech Republic and Germany as England plotted a path to the final.
In the semi-final against Denmark, he was utterly magnificent. But the Croatia interview was a reminder that there is probably no footballer who has achieved as much as Sterling has, yet still faces calls to prove his worth.
This is a man who became the eighth youngest player to reach 100 Premier League goals this season at the age of 27. He has also broken into City’s top 10 all-time leading scorers, while Wayne Rooney is the only Englishman with more Champions League strikes to his name.
He left Liverpool in 2015 in order to win major honours and has lifted nine of them. And yet…
One reason why some members of the football-supporting jury remain out on Sterling might be the very prolonged slumps he endures, to the extent they become just as visible as his biggest achievements.
Which brings us to his career record against Manchester United. Across 23 appearances for Liverpool and City against the Red Devils, he has eight wins, three draws and 12 defeats – not exactly anything to write home about, but fine as it goes.
However, the most startling element here is that Sterling – he of all those fabulous goalscoring feats just mentioned – has not found the net in any of those games. Played 23, scored none.
There were particularly galling missed in the defeat to Jose Mourinho’s United in April 2018, before City shelled a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 and put title celebrations on ice. He was also very wasteful in the dominant 2020 Carabao Cup semi-final win at Old Trafford, while his display in this fixture last season was part of the reason he was dropped by Pep Guardiola to prompt those questions around the Euros.
Impressive current form means attempt 24 is on the cards on Sunday and the bad news for United is that Sterling usually finds a way to banish these demons one way or another. He is football’s ultimate hex-buster. A player who keeps going and going until he bends things to his will, irrespective of whether it looks pretty or not.
Remember when he couldn’t score against Liverpool? Eight games of being mercilessly booed by the Anfield faithful ended when he opened the scoring in the 2019 Community Shield. That was a glorified friendly though, right?
Fair enough, he netted twice when City beat Jurgen Klopp’s freshly-crowned champions the following year. Dead rubber? Fine, how about scoring as captain in a jubillant 4-1 win at Anfield last season?
Then there was the period where he couldn’t score for England. At all.
An absurd run of 27 caps and three years, including the march to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, lay between Sterling’s second international goal against Estonia in September 2015 and his brace to down Spain in the Nations League in October 2018.
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That 3-2 win in Seville was the beginning of 16 goals in his 27 most recent England outings, having been his country’s best player on their way to a first major final for 55 years.
That high was woven through another low last year. For the first time under Pep Guardiola, Sterling found himself out of favour at City. That state of affairs remained until November of this season. He scored once in the Blues’ first 11 Premier League games of the campaign; he now has 13 across all competitions.
United might take comfort in Sterling’s dismal derby record. But it’s his last remaining hex to conquer and he tends to end them emphatically.
Finally, a derby day for Raheem to remember? He’ll be trying, trying.
Would you start Raheem Sterling against United? Follow the City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.
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