It shows the strength in depth at Manchester City that Raheem Sterling has lost his regular starting place yet Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut has just kept powering on.
The City forward has been a reliable and consistent presence ever since Guardiola took over at the club in 2016.
Three consecutive seasons of 20 or moregoals have helped make Sterling a virtual ever-present and at the centre of each of the six trophies won during that time.
But his figures have dipped this season and, in recent weeks, so too has his number of starts.
Sterling has 13 goals from his 36 appearances this campaign – still a good return, particularly for a player that was criticised in his early career for his standard of finishing.
However, it has not stopped him being left out of the line-up recently, just as City enter a critical point of the season.
The England international has played just 20 minutes of City’s last three matches since their 21-game winning streak came to an end with a poor performance in the 2-0 derby defeat at home to Manchester United.
And that appearance was only a cameoas a late substitute in the Champions League victory over Borussia Monchengladbach with the tie effectively over when City were leading 4-0 on aggregate.
Sterling was an unused substitute for the 5-2 Premier League victory over Southampton immediately after the derby and was then left behind in Manchester for the 3-0 win over Fulham last weekend.
That prompted speculation of a fall-out between Sterling and Guardiola although both player and manager have publicly denied that there is a problem.
The City boss left out of a number of key players for the Craven Cottage fixture and went with an experimental line-up that included Benjamin Mendy, making his first Premier League start in four months, and Sergio Aguero as he steps up his recovery to full fitness.
While Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez were also left out against a Fulham side fighting for survival, they were all straight back in the starting line-up to face Monchengladbach and ensure there was no Champions League hiccups in Budapest.
Sterling, however, was not.
If he is left out of Saturday’s FA Cup clash Everton, it would be his longest run without a start since a hamstring injury ruled him out for five matches between February and March 2018.
But a return is not certain.
Guardiola has the luxury of a deep and fully fit squad to choose from, with everyone desperate to make their mark.
The short trip to Goodison Park comes before an international break when an unusually sizeable chunk of the squad will remain in Manchester, including all of City’s South American players as well as overlooked French stars Aymeric Laporte and Mendy.
Sterling will take his usual spot with England for the World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland.
So, with a first break in four months coming upsoon, Guardiola can afford to call upon many of them one more time for the Everton clash as City aim to take their bid for an unprecedented quadruple into April at least.
And that leads to a question mark over whether Sterling makes it into Guardiola’s strongest team at the moment, with Mahrez and Foden flying as his wide forwards, and De Bruyne looking at home as a false nine with Gabriel Jesus and Aguero in reserve.
Guardiola just wants them all focused on the same goal.
“What is important is that they are all fit,” Guardiola said. “When we need to make subs, or rotation for tiredness, that they are ready.
“Sometimes the competition is good but most of the time, collaboration between them is even better.
“Sometimes the people say competition between them is the best and yes, sometimes it is. But when you are a team and collaborate with your mates in any circumstances, that is much, much better.
“That is the situation when everyone thinks of the common objective, the common target. To win the next game, next game, next game.
“This is what this team has done for many years and is the only secret to our success.”
Games will come thick and fast when the squad reassembles for the final period of the season after the international break with third-placed Leicester, hard-working Leeds and two Champions League clashes against Borussia Dortmund in their first 10 daysback.
And Guardiola wants to have every member of his squad ready and committed.
He has always seen hard work on the training pitch as a marker for how his players will perform on matchday.
And it’s simple for Sterling to win back his place – by showing the desire and quality that have underpinned his six years at the Etihad Stadium.
Source : goal.com