Raheem Sterling might be the most demonised player in the Premier League.
The 22-year-old must sit and wonder why he receives such heavy scrutiny both on and off the pitch, especially given the free passes afforded to fellow fledgling stars like Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford, and it’s no secret he’s endured a rough ride since joining Manchester City.
From the bizarre nationwide booing following his £44million move from Liverpool in 2015, to the vitriolic criticism after Euro 2016, there’s been a strange desire from those outside of the Etihad Stadium to see him fail.
But amid all the bluster Sterling has thundered on, maturing into a key asset under Pep Guardiola to drown out the roar of disapproval.
And while it seems the England international must do more than most to earn appreciation, the winger is certainly making it difficult to ignore his obvious quality.
Granted, Guardiola deserves a nod of acknowledgement for Sterling’s vast improvement over the last 12 months but his progression stretches beyond just the Catalan.
Here, we analyse four reasons for his development into one of English football’s finest wingers.
Raheem Sterling vs Feyenoord (H)— Jake (Pinned) (@KingDeBruyne_) November 22, 2017
Rts appreciated pic.twitter.com/5Sl2Ws7ioD
BETTER END PRODUCT
His goals have earned City nine points across the Premier League and in Europe – four more than any team-mate – and Guardiola’s reluctance to see him depart for Arsenal in the summer has been more than justified.
Seldom confident in front of goal, his lack of conviction was a huge stick to beat him with and while improvements can still be made, his deft winner against Feyenoord wasn’t a finish in isolation.
Indeed, he’s scored seven times in the league this season, equalling his tally for last term and two short of his best record while with Liverpool during the 2013/14 season.
His first-time finish from Kyle Walker’s cross against West Brom was the difference between a draw and a win while his goals against Napoli, Bournemouth and Everton were also pivotal.
From 47 games in the previous two seasons he managed 11 and 10 goals across all competitions – this term he’s already reached 11 and is comfortably on course for his most prolific campaign to date.
Sterling’s ability to find the target more accurately is leaving his critics short of ammunition.
A shift in attitude hasn’t just come in the form of confidence in front of goal.
Indeed, his tireless workrate has been married to a desire to get on the ball more often and rather than wait for things to happen, he is making it happen.
In the past Sterling could be accused of shirking responsibility by marooning himself on the touchline. While a small sample size, the Feyenoord game can be used as a prime example of his desire to get more involved.
He had 70 touches on Tuesday, made the second most key passes (3) and had the most shots on target (2).
Even though Guardiola likes to rotate his attackers, Sterling has come in and taken his opportunities.
Last season, the winger had a habit of over complicating things but now the self-belief has given him the confidence to both create and score chances.
The game is full of various personalities and it’s probably not inaccurate to say Sterling needs a level of comfort to bring out his best.
Without the cauldron of boos, a healthy mindset is allowing Sterling to flourish.
For all of his doubters there has been one man to retain faith in Sterling.
From phoning to offer support after a torrid Euro 2016 before they’d even met to the utter rejection of Arsenal’s summer approach, Pep Guardiola has always made clear how important Sterling is.
“They talked to me and I said: ‘No chance. Zero chance. Not one per cent chance we will swap Raz because I trust a lot in him’,” the Catalan said of the Gunners advance.
And the trust is mutual. A video from pre-season went viral in the aftermath of City’s win on Tuesday as it showed Guardiola altering Sterling’s body position in one-two situations.
The former Barcelona boss could be seen clearly instructing Sterling to open up his body more and it was the exact situation which led to the crucial winner.
His philosophy of ensuring players are always aware and using the correct body positioning has evidently had a profound effect on Sterling.
And this level of coaching has taken players like the England man onto a new level.
For all the touts of him being a “chequebook” manager it’s impossible to deny Guardiola’s ability to bring the best out of the players at his disposal and for that he deserves immense credit.
The unwavering support of Guardiola is emphatically paying off but another element of his success has been a change of style brought on by the fixes at full-back.
Like his youthful twin of destruction on the left, Leroy Sane and Sterling have both benefited from the injection of pace in City’s key defensive positions.
The aging legs of Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna have been replaced by the exuberance of Kyle Walker, Fabian Delph and Danilo with Benjamin Mendy also in the mix when he returns from injury.
Their ability to get up and down has allowed Sterling to pop up in the box more often. His goals have largely come from his clever runs into the back post and the greater intensity from overlapping full-backs has allowed him to come in from the wing with greater urgency.
He’s getting more goals than assists and this newfound freedom is helping both the wingers and the team to function much better.
And as mentioned above, when Sterling is in threatening positions he’s making it count whether it be from a confident attitude, the Guardiola effect or from the altered style.
One of the football’s most iconic boots is being relaunched in its latest avatar. Manchester United and France star Paul Pogba presented the adidas Predator 18+ 360 control on Wednesday, with the boot also being launched for Dele Alli and Mesut Ozil.
The latest Predator drew inspiration from its predecessors, with the iconic line of boots having previously been worn by, among others, David Beckham, Kaka, and of course Zinedine Zidane, who scored his famous volley in the 2002 Champions League final wearing the boot.
All three of those footballing legends, along with Pogba and Alli, recalled the influence of the Predator, adding weight to the history behind the famous shoe.
Pogba presented the newest version to the world as part of adidas’ launch event, which was streamed worldwide on Twitter. The Frenchman will be the first high-profile player to wear the Predator 18+ 360 in a match, as United play in the Champions League on Wednesday night.
Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic is also set to begin wearing the boot on Wednesday as his side face Juventus.
The first adidas Predator was launched in 1994, and it is arguably the most classic, legendary football boot of all-time. Zidane wore that boot when he scored two goals to win France the 1998 World Cup final – although both of those were scored with his head.
Beckham was wearing it when he scored what is possibly still the most memorable goal of his career, the outrageous lob against Wimbledon from the halfway line in 1996.
But as much as the best players’ feats while wearing the boot were great advertising, they still couldn’t top what the adidas team originally came up with – a player bringing a high ball under his control with a silky touch, before gliding past a series of challenges. At the end, the boot was described as: 100% legal. 0% fair.
The Predator has understandably emerged through multiple revisions since then, but that powerful tagline remains even as the new boot is presented by today’s footballing icons. Pogba, Ozil, and company are ready to create their own history in the Predator’s latest chapter.
Only victory will do for hosts Juventus on Wednesday night if they are to snatch top spot off resurgent rivals Barcelona in this enticing Champions League clash.
The sides also met in 2016/17’s quarter-finals and here we look at three key battles for what is sure to be another premier match-up.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI V LUIS SUAREZ
Competition does not get much fiercer than when this pair meet.
Infamously, Suarez received a four-month ban from all football-related activity after taking a bite out of Chiellini when Uruguay met Italy at World Cup 2014. But, all differences were soon set aside.
The striker – who has been stymied by a knee injury – received a welcome shot of confidence during the weekend’s La Liga win at Leganes, scoring twice to end a five-match streak without a goal. A return of his trademark sharpness could tip the balance in Barca’s favour, with centre-back-warrior Chiellini now part of a surprisingly-porous backline which has leaked 44 goals in all competitions in 2017/18 compared to 37 after 18 games of the previous campaign.
BLAISE MATUIDI V SERGIO BUSQUETS
Whichever side gains a foothold in midfield will surely go on to dominate this contest.
In France and Juve’s Blaise Matuidi and Spain and Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, two of the finest defensive midfelders of the last decade will be in action at Juventus Stadium.
The latter has clear advantage coming into this clash when judging the statistics. Busquet is averaging three tackles per game in the current Champions League compared to Matuidi’s 0.5, while his average passing accuracy of 92.5 per cent is noticeably superior to his opponent’s 87.5 per cent.
If these trends continue in Turin, Argentina icon Lionel Messi and Suarez should gain room to run riot.
PAULO DYBALA V GERARD PIQUE
A genuine test of Dybala’s big-game reputation lies in store.
Dybala’s star accelerated on its ascent in last year’s quarter-finals when he tormented Pique and his fellow defenders with a brace in the first leg’s 3-0 thrashing. But despite his unbelievable personal start to 2017/18, which featured 12 strikes in his opening 10 run-outs in all competitions, the Argentina forward was eerily quiet at Camp Nou in September when Barca gained partial revenge with their own 3-0 humbling to take control of Group D.
Pique is back from suspension and will form a formidable blockade with dynamic France centre-back Samuel Umtiti. For Dybala to succeed, he will need to get the former in open space and use his rapid dribbling skills to telling effect – such as Sunday’s consolation in the shock 3-2 loss to Sampdoria.