It should have been Raheem Sterling’s crowning moment as a Manchester City player. The third minute of stoppage-time in a Champions League quarter-final, at the same end as Sergio Aguero’s landmark title winner all those years prior.
City needed one more to push past Tottenham on the most dramatic night in their European history. As he so often does, Sterling found it for them. His hat-trick, scuttled beyond Hugo Lloris, sent them into the semi-finals.
At that moment, a close friend watching in Los Angeles set off on a wild mid-afternoon celebration down his boulevard in the scorching west coast sun. When he returned, the air had gone cold, the Etihad Stadium had long gone from pandemonium to perplexity. Aguero was offside in the build-up. City were out.
Raheem Sterling thought he had fired Manchester City into the semi-finals last season
The England star looked despondent after his last-gasp goal was ruled out for offside by VAR
Sterling’s colossal effort would be forgotten, although the pain of that evening last year lingered. He has confided that the away goals defeat by Spurs — the tie ended 4-4 on aggregate — was ‘the worst night of my life’. He was not himself for three days, finding the crushing disappointment hard to shake off.
So perhaps it is no surprise that he recently asked BT Sport to supply full footage of that quarter-final. Sterling wanted to pore over it ahead of last week’s triumph over Real Madrid for inspiration, to harness the feeling of loss. For him, reliving that process is a motivation tool. He diligently jots down observations of training and match clips on iPhone notes and it is fair to assume that particular page was full when re-watching the Spurs tie.
He calmly slotted in the opener against Real, his sixth of the competition. Lyon are next in the last eight on Saturday and only victory will do for a club that has reached only one semi-final in eight attempts so far — and never under Pep Guardiola.
Sterling was still referencing Spurs three months later when sat in a plain conference room inside a swanky hotel in uptown Hong Kong during pre-season.
Sterling used the disappointment of last season as motivation to down Real Madrid last week
‘There were decisions out of our control in Europe which is why we went out, but that competition is an area we can improve on,’ he reflected, more talking about Fernando Llorente’s key goal, which City felt went in off the striker’s hand, than the offside decision.
He said the words ‘improve’ or ‘better’ 13 times in nine minutes — even when talking about his own goals tally. Sterling’s haul had been the best of his career, 25 club goals for the first time ever. That would have been 26, and just taken him over the one-in-two threshold, had VAR not spotted Aguero’s infringement.
Fast-forward 12 months and the continued refinement is frightening. This will be the first year since Aguero signed from Atletico Madrid in 2011 that the Argentine has not finished top scorer. His record remains exceptional — 23 goals in 32 games — yet City have found the man who takes up that responsibility in his absence, as evidenced during Project Restart.
Sterling heads into the Champions League ‘final tournament’ with 31 club goals from 51 matches, another significant leap in performance. Lionel Messi (50), Robert Lewandowski (54) and Kylian Mbappe (44) were the only men in Europe to score more than Sterling’s 43 goals for club and country in 2019.
Sterling has been on fire this season and is the club’s top scorer with 31 goals from 51 games
Just before the season started, Sterling set himself the target of three separate hat-tricks for City and England, plus an overall tally of between 35 and 45. He stands at 35 with three potentially career-defining matches left.
He scored his third hat-trick of the term at Brighton last month. He had demanded an increased amount of ‘important goals’ and has scored the first in games on 12 occasions since.
What’s more is that the 25-year-old, having still not yet arrived at his peak years, has eyes on a City record. No player has hit more than 34 in a season since Franny Lee recorded 35 — almost half of which were penalties — way back in 1972. Aguero’s best was 33, recorded in Guardiola’s first campaign.
Since then, Sterling has 23, 25 and now 31. And he is acutely aware that those numbers could increase radically in the future if he becomes even more composed. Sterling has counted six missed opportunities in recent matches where he hesitated. If those go in on a more regular basis, the sort of chances Sterling knows he over-thinks, then he enters a sphere that no England player has ever really hit.
There will be conversations with those whose advice he trusts implicitly during the short pre-season, centred on further clearing his mind in front of goal.
Sterling needs four goals to become first City player to net 35 in a season since Franny Lee
The bar continues to rise, yet Sterling’s finishing continues to be questioned despite the scary numbers. But, unlike earlier in his career when social media criticism ate away at him, Sterling relishes proving a point. And that is down to a change in mindset. It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly that occurred but those who know him say the forward’s attitude now is more akin to that feared teenager at Queens Park Rangers, largely forgetting the complications and ramifications of competitive sport.
‘There isn’t any player who thinks they’re at their best,’ he said back in Hong Kong to a room of raised eyebrows. ‘That is what drives us on to do big things.’
It is certainly conceivable that Sterling could write himself into City legend over the next two weeks.