Such was the delay inside the Etihad Stadium following Manchester City’s second goal that there were a number of theories flying around as to the reason for any confusion, but one explanation felt particularly amusing given the circumstances. How could Raheem Sterling not be interfering with play? His influence on this game was near constant.
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Sterling was duly named man of the match having scored the crucial breakthrough goal for Manchester City in their 3-0 win over Aston Villa. There were cheers when that was announced but not much surprise. It felt routine because it is routine now. The new normal for the man with more goals – 13 – than any other Premier League player this season.
The winger tormented Aston Villa right-back Frederic Guilbert throughout and the visiting manager Dean Smith did not need to wait to be asked about Sterling’s performance afterwards. Instead, he volunteered his thoughts on what he had just seen. After mentioning him in passing, there came a puff of the cheeks and a brief pause.
“Sterling for me is pretty much unplayable at the moment,” said Smith.
It was the only way to see it. Even as Villa defended well before the break, the threat was obvious. Within minutes of kick-off, he had beaten Guilbert and slipped in David Silva. Soon after, his twisting and turning in the box led to Kevin De Bruyne firing off a shot. Just before the interval, he set up Silva again only for the Spaniard to drag his shot wide.
They were just the chances he created for others. Sterling also had four shots from inside the penalty area in this game. That’s the fifth time he has managed that this season – more than any other player. Keeping him out of there appears impossible. He had 17 touches inside the opposition box – the most by anyone in a Premier League game this season.
“He not only gets in behind but he can check at full pelt too,” added Smith.
While talking up Sterling’s brilliance is a relatively new experience for the Villa manager, his Manchester City counterpart had the air of a man well accustomed to the post-match ritual.
“It is like VAR,” said Pep Guardiola.
“Every press conference we talk about Raheem.”
Nevertheless, the City boss was well aware of the reason why.
“Normally we use this word aggressive and always it is when you don’t have the ball but I like to use this word aggressive when you do have the ball,” he explained. “The only person [in the first half] who was aggressive when we had the ball was Raheem.
“In the second half, we imitated him.”
Guardiola added: “He showed us the way we had to play and it was much better. Be aggressive when we have the ball, how you pass, how you finish, how you arrive to score the goal. Be aggressive with the ball and we were not aggressive in the first half.”
Gabriel Jesus showed some aggression of his own in outjumping Tyrone Mings to win the flick on that found Sterling in the left channel in the opening moments of the second half. The in-form forward did the rest in firing past Tom Heaton and there was no way back from there.
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He might have had an assist when he returned the favour after seizing upon an error by Bjorn Engels but Jesus saw his shot cleared off the line by Mings. Another opening followed but Sterling’s decision to take a touch allowed his marker to put the ball out for a corner. He seemed to almost convulse in frustration at allowing the opportunity to pass him by.
It was a telling reaction. Fresh from his Champions League hat-trick on Tuesday night and having already found the net once that half, Sterling still wanted more. This is a player who is determined to improve and when you are as talented as he is that determination is the guarantee that he will improve. And he now wants to do it every single game too.
“What I like about Raheem is that after scoring three goals against Atalanta, assists and penalties and involved in everything in the final third, everybody speaks in the media and everybody says how good you are, how good you are, how good you are,” said Guardiola.
“Normally in the next game you play like a little bit, how good am I? It was the complete opposite. He played like Phil Foden. Like it was the last 15 minutes of his life. I think it is our strength as a team in the last few years together to go in every game. I am so proud.”