Raheem Sterling grew up in the shadow of the Wembley arch and has a tattoo of his younger self staring up at England’s national stadium on his arm.
Two years ago, as Manchester City completed an unprecedented domestic treble, he left his mark all over one of football’s most famous stages.
He scored twice in a 6-0 FA Cup final demolition of Watford, having netted a maiden England hat-trick against the Czech Republic.
Then there was the 2019 EFL Cup final, where Sterling strode up to nonchalantly place the decisive penalty kick into the top corner to sink Chelsea in a shoot-out.
Pep Guardiola had been too nervous to watch. Asking Sterling what happened afterwards, the forward cheekily replied: “Top bins”.
Heading into Sunday’s final, where City were forced to bide their time before securing a 1-0 victory over Totenham and a record-equalling fourth-straight triumph in this competition, the 26-year-old’s form has not been so much top bins as a smouldering dumpster fire.
4 – Pep Guardiola has become the first manager to win the English League Cup in four consecutive seasons, while no manager has lifted the trophy on more occasions than the Spaniard (4 – level with Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho). Retained. #CarabaoCupFinal #MCITOT pic.twitter.com/pHOnZ9kNWW
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 25, 2021
Sterling was without a goal in nine City appearances since netting decisively at Arsenal back in February. After tallies of 25 goals in 2018-19, when he was named FWA Footballer of the Year, and 31 last term, he returned to Wembley stuck on an increasingly unlucky 13.
At times, it has felt like the famed work rate that made him such a Guardiola favourite was smothering attempts to regain top gear. The harder Sterling tried, the worse he looked.
A combination of Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez’s dazzling form, the aforementioned drought and a reported row with Guardiola that both men denied has seen Sterling out in the cold when it comes to City’s biggest games. His first action in the Champions League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund came after 88 minutes of the second leg.
Gareth Southgate has also viewed the ex-Liverpool man as a go-to starter, but his experiences under Guardiola show such statuses are never set in stone and England are very well-stocked when it comes to livewire wide attackers.
Faced with a tentative Tottenham, Sterling tore into his work on Sunday like a man with a point to prove. An early hesitation saw him mugged by Serge Aurier inside the box but he skinned the former Paris Saint-Germain full-back and drilled in a cross with just too much heat for Foden to convert.
There was a clash of heads with Toby Alderweireld when he nodded a Mahrez cross wide, but Sterling bounced back up and was soon haring past a befuddled Sergio Reguilon. The end product was not there, as has so often and maddeningly been the case recently, but Guardiola extravagantly showed his approval from the sidelines.
Eric Dier, another England international with doubters to placate, made a stunning last-ditch block from a Sterling shot that was destined for the bottom corner. A combination of Alderweireld and the post denied Foden even more improbably and Spurs emerged from a first-half shellacking with the deadlock still intact.
City’s fluency waned during the second half and Sterling lifting a speculative 20-yarder way over spoke of a team straining for the breakthrough, no longer so swaggeringly sure of their superiority. His five attempts were more than any other player in blue.
2 – Tottenham only attempted two shots in today’s League Cup final against Man City, accumulating an expected goals total of 0.06, while in contrast the Citizens fired in 21 shots and posted an xG of 3.63. Bombarded. #CarabaoCupFinal #MCITOT pic.twitter.com/mCOP0FjLNe
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 25, 2021
Ilkay Gundogan, one of Guardiola’s most reliable finishers this season, released Sterling and volleyed his return delivery wide.
Then, just when frustration and anxiety were reaching dangerous levels for a team in a cup final with both centre-backs and a defensive midfielder on yellow cards – an impressively haphazard subplot City managed to weave into their general dominance – the Sterling trait that has done so much to highlight his struggles became a virtue. He just kept going and going.
Aurier put in an overall display to belie his reputation for an uneasy relationship with basic discipline, but City’s left winger coaxed a foul out of his marker in the 81st minute. Kevin De Bruyne curled in the free-kick and defender Aymeric Laporte popped up with a towering close-range header, sealing the deal with a most un-Guardiola goal.
Sterling was standing in the six-yard box and clenched both fists before turning away from the mob engulfing Laporte to congratulate De Bruyne, a man on top of his game.
The same cannot be said for Sterling right now, but this felt like a step in the right direction.
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