Raheem Sterling has lost his place in the Manchester City starting line-up prompting fresh speculation.

Phil Foden has taken Sterling's role with devastating effect, including scoring the winner in their midweek Champions League triumph over Borussia Dortmund.

Sterling's contract talks have also been shelved for the season, fuelling the rumours.

 

TOP STORY - REAL REIGNITE RAHEEM INTEREST

Real Madrid have reignited their interest in Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling according to the Daily Star.

Sterling is contracted with City for another two seasons, putting them in a strong position to hang on to the England international with a reported £80million price tag.

But regular football and the lure of Madrid could be compelling for Sterling who joined City from Liverpool in 2015 for £44m.

 

ROUND-UP

-The Daily Star reports that Paul Pogba's agent Mino Raiola has informed Manchester United that he will only re-sign for a mammoth £500,000-a-week contract. Interested clubs Juventus, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain have also been informed of his wage demands.

-Adama Traore will be offloaded by Wolverhampton as they seek to raise funds for their off-season recruitment reports Football Insider.

-Mundo Deportivo claims that Tottenham are keen to sign Real Betis defender Emerson, having shown interest last off-season.

-Manchester United are homing in on 18-year-old Metz midfielder Pape Sarr according to The Sun although they will face plenty of competition.

Pep Guardiola has suggested Raheem Sterling needs to rediscover his confidence if he is to usurp Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez from Manchester City's starting XI.

Sterling has been an important performer throughout the Guardiola era at the Etihad Stadium but has started just two of City's past eight games across all competitions.

He was in the XI for all three of England's World Cup qualifiers during the recent international break, scoring in a 5-0 win against San Marino.

Sterling started City's surprise Premier League defeat to Leeds United yet was back on the bench for Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund, during which both Mahrez and Foden scored to seal a place in the last four.

"He's maybe the second or third player with the most minutes this season," the City boss told a media conference.

"The trust with Raheem is intact. He's only played less because Phil and Riyad are at the top level, scoring goals and being so decisive in the final third.

"The confidence, he has to have it. He has it from all of us, he has to have it because the quality is there. I cannot give the players confidence, he can have it for himself.

"Having confidence from me, for being selected, is completely the opposite. What we have done in these incredible years, with this amount of titles and records that went on, Raheem has been key.

"He was a key player and is a key player. But at this moment Phil is playing really good and Riyad is playing really good. That's the only reason. They know it. They know it and everybody plays a lot of minutes this season.

"Every day, people want to take what happened in the past and future. I could not care less. I don't care. I care about the training sessions, how you were, how you behave, about the body language, your mood, and then tomorrow, semi-final day, that's when you have to talk.

"We have excellent human beings, the relationship in the locker room in bad moments this season was fantastic and in good moments it's fantastic."

Meanwhile, Guardiola confirmed Zack Steffen will start against Chelsea ahead of first-choice goalkeeper Ederson.

The United States international has started all four of City's games in the FA Cup this season and Guardiola acknowledged it would not be fair on the 26-year-old to drop him for the clash with Thomas Tuchel's side.

"He's played really well in the FA Cup," Guardiola explained. "He's an international goalkeeper and when he has played he has played at a good level. He's training well, he deserves it. I am more than delighted to give him this opportunity."

Pep Guardiola shrugged off the suggestion Phil Foden's sensational form proves he was right to slowly ease the youngster into first-team action, insisting football is only about the present.

Manchester City prodigy Foden made his Premier League debut in 2017-18, playing five times in total. While his talent was obvious, Guardiola was cautious with his development, opting to drop the attacker in and out of games, sometimes causing ire in the media.

A total of 13 league appearances followed in 2018-19 before Foden truly began to establish himself last season, making 37 appearances across all competitions.

Guardiola's cautious approach has seemingly paid off, with Foden one of City's most impressive players this campaign.

The 20-year-old has played 41 times in total, including 29 starts. He is joint-second – alongside Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling – in City's scorers' list with 13 goals, behind Ilkay Gundogan (16); Foden's latest strike coming against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday.

His tally of nine assists is bettered only by Kevin De Bruyne (16), with the Belgian (99) and Riyad Mahrez (75) the two City players to have created more chances than Foden (65).

But asked if he can take credit for Foden's development, Guardiola insisted the England international must continue to prove himself in every game.

"It's not about what we believed in the past, it's about what they show on the grass," Guardiola told a news conference ahead of City's FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Saturday.

"So, footballers have to show every single day. The journalists will talk a lot about the past, or the future. In football it's about the present.

"In the present it doesn't matter what we have done, it's what we do today. Everybody is involved, talking and talking. The players have to talk on the grass.

"It's the only way they can protect their position and win in the present and in the future. It's as simple as that.

"Phil in that case, everything we get right now is on the grass, not in any other situations. He's going to continue being there depending on his performance, not on what he has done so far at a young age. You have to every game win something to stay in the position and playing every day."

While Foden is thriving, one player whose form has been called into question in some quarters is Sterling, who only came on for a brief cameo towards the end against Dortmund.

Guardiola, however, disregarded the suggestion it had to be a choice between Foden or Sterling for a spot on the left.

"If you know a bit the trajectory of this team selection, then the answer is obvious," said Guardiola, who also confirmed Sergio Aguero will not be fit to feature at Wembley.

"Of course they can play together, they have played many times together. Phil can play in five positions, Sterling in three positions. Everyone can play in a few positions, so it depends on them."

Sterling has created fewer opportunities than Foden this season (45), though he has the same amount of assists, having crafted the same number of Opta-defined "big chances" (12) and both are over-performing their expected assists to a similar degree.

 

Foden has a slightly better shot conversion rate – 16.1 per cent compared to 15.7 – though has attempted two fewer (81 compared to 83) attempts than the former Liverpool winger.

Pep Guardiola insists Raheem Sterling is only out of the Manchester City side due to the "incredible, incredible, incredible top form" of Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden.

Sterling has been a key performer throughout the Guardiola era at the Etihad Stadium but a scoreless outing in last month's 2-0 FA Cup quarter-final win at Everton stands as his only start in City's past six matches across all competitions.

He was in the first XI for all three of England's World Cup qualifiers during the recent international break, scoring against San Marino.

The 26-year-old was back to a substitute's role when the Premier League leaders took on Leicester City last weekend before failing to feature in the 2-1 Champions League quarter-final win over Borussia Dortmund.

Sterling might have the chance to press his claims once again when City host Leeds United on Saturday, with Guardiola expected to ring the changes.

Both men denied a reported bust-up in the aftermath of last month's Manchester derby defeat and the City manager insists the form of midweek matchwinner Foden and Mahrez – who was named PFA Premier League Player of the Month for March on Friday – is what has forced his hand.

"Raheem has been so important in our period here since we arrived, nothing would have been possible without him," he said.

"Right now, I decided because I see Riyad and Phil in incredible, incredible, incredible top form. This is the only reason why, there is not another one.

"Phil, you see the last 30 minutes he played against Dortmund, he created all the chances that we had [after] 1-0, he scored the last goal with an incredible control and assist from Gundo [Ilkay Gundogan].

"And Riyad, the last month always has been so decisive, so this is the only reason why.

"He's important for the team and the club, there's no doubt about that. That was the reason for the selection."

Mahrez and Foden more creative

Since the turn of the year, during which time City have won 24 of 25 games across all competitions, Sterling has started 15 matches compared to 16 apiece for Mahrez and Foden.

Foden leads the way with 1,480 minutes, to 1,312 for his England counterpart and 1,462 for the Algeria international.

Despite missing a couple of gilt-edged chances before his winner, Foden's eye for goal has been a notable feature of City's campaign, and his seven goals for 2021 is more than Mahrez (five), who is outscored by Sterling (six) over the period in question.

However, operating nominally as wide forwards, Foden (38) and Mahrez (34) have created considerably more chances than Sterling (19) this calendar year and are second only to Kevin De Bruyne (44) in the City squad. That output has yielded six assists for Mahrez, five for Foden – level with De Bruyne - and three for Sterling.

Mahrez's 47 crosses from open play are more than any other City player in 2021, with Foden's 28 coming in behind De Bruyne (34) and Joao Cancelo (33). Sterling is back on 13, with one completed.

The former Liverpool man's dribbling prowess remains to the fore, with the most attempted (79) and completed (38) among his team-mates during this period. Mahrez boasts an impressive dribble success rate of 55 per cent thanks to 33 out of 60, while Foden has completed 26 of 53 after tormenting Dortmund at times.

Looking after the ball

This season, Guardiola's City have often seemed to play in a more controlled fashion and the manager underlined the importance of retaining possession in all areas of the field.

"There are players who are incredible to make movements in behind, runs in behind and there are others who have the quality to not lose the ball in any circumstances," he said.

"They are good at keeping the ball and sometimes, in some games, we need this more than the other situations.

"Some players suit better the way we have to play than the other ones, just for the skills, not being on bad form or whatever."

While acknowledging Sterling, Foden and Mahrez are each very well-rounded attackers, Sterling's forte lies more with the piercing runs in behind that Guardiola identifies.

Mahrez and Foden – as you might expect for a player who came through City's ranks as a central midfielder – tend to be a little more reliable in possession and this could further explain Guardiola's recent thinking.

Creative attacking players generally rack up more instances of possession lost due to the kind of passes and dribbles they attempt, so a good measure of how well they use the ball is to calculate their giveaways as a percentage of their overall touches.

In 2021, 1,067 touches and 202 instances of giving away possession amounts to 18.9 per cent for Mahrez, making him the most judicious of the trio.

Foden has lost possession 221 times from 1,008 touches (21.9 per cent) but Sterling's percentage is a little higher at 22.3 despite only 883 touches (possession lost 197 times).

This aspect might not be to the fore if Saturday's showdown with Leeds is similarly chaotic to October's 1-1 draw at Elland Road, but it is perhaps the desire for elusive Champions League glory that has persuaded Guardiola to seek greater control, leaving Foden and Mahrez as his go-to men and Sterling with unfamiliar work to do.

Another day, another Erling Haaland rumour.

Haaland's future is dominating headlines amid widespread interest in Europe.

Barcelona are reportedly interested in the Borussia Dortmund sensation.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI OUT, HAALAND IN?

Barcelona have identified Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland as a top transfer priority if Lionel Messi leaves at the end of the season, according to Diario AS.

Messi is out of contract at season's end and the superstar Barca captain has been tipped to join either Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City.

Should Messi depart, Haaland is wanted by Barca and head coach Ronald Koeman, though all eyes will be on Lyon forward Memphis Depay if the former remains at Camp Nou.

Haaland has also been linked with Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus, PSG, Liverpool and City.

 

ROUND-UP

- Fabrizio Romano claims City are convinced Kevin De Bruyne will sign a new contract with the club. Raheem Sterling's contract is also on the agenda, while soon-to-be free agent Sergio Aguero will decide his future in the coming weeks. Aguero has been linked with Inter, Barca and Chelsea.

United are set to challenge Madrid in the chase to sign Villarreal defender Pau Torres, reports The Mirror. United are keen to bolster their defence amid links with Madrid pair Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, Sevilla's Jules Kounde and RB Leipzig centre-back Ibrahima Konate.

- Calciomercato says Inter will reject any offers for star Romelu Lukaku. It comes as Chelsea and Barca reportedly eye the in-form Belgian.

Barca are monitoring the future of Valencia star Jose Luis Gaya, according to Diario AS. The captain is negotiating a new contract with Valencia.

- Napoli and Spain midfielder Fabian Ruiz is wanted by LaLiga trip Barca, Madrid and Atletico Madrid, claims Diario Sport.

- Mundo Deportivo reports Arsenal are considering a move for Real Betis star Nabil Fekir amid doubts over loanees Martin Odegaard and Dani Ceballos.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin struck twice and Ollie Watkins scored a debut goal as England started their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 5-0 thrashing of San Marino at Wembley.

Gareth Southgate was able to celebrate his 50th match as manager of his country with a Group I victory which should have been much more emphatic on Thursday.

James Ward-Prowse opened the scoring with his first senior international goal before Calvert-Lewin and Raheem Sterling got in on the act in a first half that saw England waste a host of clear-cut chances.

Calvert-Lewin doubled his tally early in the second half and substitute Watkins was on target on his Three Lions bow on another tough night for a San Marino team sitting at the bottom of the FIFA rankings, with much bigger tests to come for England on the road to Qatar 2022.

San Marino were chasing shadows from the start, but Calvert-Lewin somehow failed to convert Reece James' cross and Sterling – named as captain with Harry Kane on the bench – was off target with two close-range headers.

It was only a matter of time before England took the lead and Ward-Prowse was the man to put them in front, sweeping home Ben Chilwell's cutback with his left foot 14 minutes in.

Calvert-Lewin doubled their advantage by nodding in James' inviting cross and Chilwell's rasping drive was superbly tipped over by Elia Benedettini before Sterling punished San Marino for trying to play out from the back, cutting inside before finding the net with a deflected right-foot finish.

England were relentless, with Mason Mount pulling the strings, and the recalled Jesse Lingard scuffed wastefully wide from close range before he was denied by a brilliant save from Benedettini late in the first half.

Southgate made four changes at the break, with Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden among the quartet to come on and Sterling handing the armband to Conor Coady.

It was all too easy for England as Calvert-Lewin tapped in the lively Lingard's cross in the 53rd minute, but there was to be no hat-trick for the Everton striker as he was replaced by Watkins.

Ward-Prowse came close to a second when Benedettini produced another fine save to keep out the midfielder's whipped free-kick and Watkins volleyed into the turf and over the crossbar moments later.

Watkins was not to be denied seven minutes from time, though, controlling the ball just inside the area and drilling home with his right foot.

Kevin De Bruyne's scintillating long-range strike against Borussia Monchengladbach last week was Manchester City's 100th goal of the season and maintained Pep Guardiola's record of his sides reaching a century in each of his 12 seasons in top-flight coaching.

At Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now at Manchester City, Guardiola the tactician is loath to go on the defensive.

However, whenever he feels the quality or worth of one of his players might have been called into question during a news conference, that position is second nature.

"He's an incredibly important player for us," the Catalan snapped back unequivocally when Raheem Sterling's declining output in front of goal was raised this year, two days after he put a penalty against Brighton and Hove Albion into orbit to prolong a lean spell of three goals in 18 games.

"Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible."

Quite simply, that is a whole lot of everything.

Under Guardiola, City have won six major honours. They became the first team to reach the 100-points landmark when lifting the Premier League in 2017-18 and retained the title as part of an unprecedented domestic treble the following season.

A 14-point lead at the top of the table and next month's dates in the EFL Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals mean a clean sweep in England is once again a possibility as Borussia Dortmund await in the last eight of the Champions League.

One of the points of difference this time around is Guardiola's apparently assertion the past couple of weeks that more of the success he craves might be possible with Sterling confined to the margins.

After being defended by his manager in January, Sterling embarked upon a run of six goals in nine games across all competitions, including one in a deeply cathartic 4-1 win over former club Liverpool at Anfield and concluding with an early winner at Arsenal in February.

He has not added to a 13-goal haul in 2020-21 since and after, wasting two glorious late chances in the 2-0 derby defeat to Manchester United, Sterling was an unused substitute for the subsequent 5-2 win over Southampton.

That decision apparently prompted a row denied by both men – "nothing happened" said Guardiola, "FALSE" tweeted Sterling – after the England international was omitted from the travelling squad for a 3-0 win at Fulham.

It means, as Wednesday marks the ninth anniversary of the 26-year-old's top-flight debut, that one of the most impressive Premier League careers of the past decade has encountered some unusual on-field turbulence.

 

Chasing Shearer and Rooney

Aside from a tempestuous end to his final season at Liverpool as Sterling sought to leave and a patchy start at City as Manuel Pellegrini's tenure spluttered to an end, the winger's trajectory has aimed relentlessly upwards since Kenny Dalglish introduced him as a substitute against Wigan Athletic on March 24, 2012, aged 17 years and 107 days.

He has 144 direct goal involvements in 284 Premier League games, with 95 goals and 49 assists. Ranking all players in Premier League history before their 27th birthdays, this puts Sterling eighth – one place above David Beckham (128 goal involvements).

Wayne Rooney leads the way (215) from Alan Shearer (172), Harry Kane (163), Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler (both 162), Michael Owen (156) and Romelu Lukaku (148), meaning a few of that esteemed group are within reach for Sterling before he turns 27 on December 8.

Overall, Shearer remains king, his all-time record haul of 260 Premier League goals among 325 goal involvements, ahead of Rooney on 311 (208 goals, 103 assists).

By all accounts, Sterling should be entering his peak years and is fractionally ahead of Liverpool duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane (92 and 91 respectively) in the race to become the 30th member of the Premier League's 100 goals club.

Along with having the chance to join Rooney and Frank Lampard as the third dual goals and assists centurion in league history, Sterling's overall output means he will get close to Shearer and Rooney's levels if he can maintain it.

All of which makes Sterling's absence from a certain conversation fairly curious.

 

From #TheHatedOne to Premier League great?

In recent years, Manchester City bade fond farewells to the first batch of superstars that propelled the club's transformation from also-rans to trophy collectors.

When they departed, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and David Silva were all acclaimed as being among the very best in their positions to grace the division. Similar talk will accompany Sergio Aguero if, as looks increasingly likely, he leaves the Etihad Stadium when his contract expires in June.

De Bruyne is very much in the midst of his prime years, having joined City in the same 2015 close-season as Sterling, and is already spoken of in such terms.

But the notion of Raheem Sterling: Premier League great? Despite the numbers outlined above, it is a consideration seldom made.

This can be partly attributed to the vitriolic reaction that followed his Liverpool exit, which embedded poisonous and unfair perceptions of an ambitious young footballer.

"It just winds me up and angers me to the pit of my stomach," said Kop favourite Jamie Carragher of Sterling's desire to leave Anfield. John Aldridge declared a then 20-year-old "too young to think for himself", despite middle age seemingly not opening up such a capacity for the former striker.

Carragher, Aldridge and numerous other ex-Reds within the pundit class were speaking passionately in defence of the club they loved, but unfortunately with no regard for the abuse – both insidious and explicit – they helped to normalise.

Sterling was infamously dubbed "footie Idiot Raheem" in a Sun article – still available online, as it happens – following England's Euro 2016 exit against Iceland, where the City player won a penalty in a 2-1 defeat.

Earlier in the tournament, he labelled himself "#TheHatedOne" on social media. The vibrant performer from his Liverpool days began to return on the field under Guardiola, but the attitude from the terraces made it feel like Sterling had a point.

At grounds such as Turf Moor, the Hawthorns and the King Power Stadium, he was booed, despite no obvious rivalry existing between City and their opponents. For many there was grimly familiar discomfort and unease: surely it's not about that, is it?

Then, at Stamford Bridge in December 2018, Sterling was targeted by a group of home supporters, their faces contorted in anger. The incident led Chelsea to banning a fan for life for using "racially abusive language".

The day after the match, Sterling addressed the unequal media coverage given to black and white footballers in a social media post, and what this means to those on the receiving end. He remains a powerful voice in the fight against racism in football and society as a whole.

Sterling's status as a role model and an inspiration played a part alongside his phenomenal performances for treble-winning City as he was named 2018-19 FWA Footballer of the Year.

 

The surrounding and frequently vile noise accompanying his career in England is not something shared by Sterling's City counterparts. The stand he took after the Chelsea match will remain a defining time in his career and, in terms of performance analysis, it might be seen as the moment where all other noise faded into the background and a rare talent was given his due. 

There is, however, another elephant in the room when it comes to assessing Sterling's elite credentials. Or, more accurately, an elephant in the six-yard box.

Floored by missed sitters

The 2019-20 season was the most prolific of Sterling's career as he scored 31 times overall and hit 20 in the Premier League.

Nevertheless, it concluded with him somehow blazing over from four yards with City 2-1 down to Lyon in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The Ligue 1 club soon led 3-1 and City were out – a nadir of the Guardiola era.

For a player who scores so frequently, Sterling's finishing remains maddeningly unreliable at times.

During City's 100-point season, Guardiola hauled him off after an implausible miss at Burnley and a couple of botched clear openings in that April Manchester derby, where City led 2-0 and lost 3-2, were a huge factor in the ultimate bragging rights of claiming a league title with victory over their bitter rivals going begging.

Then, despite contributing tirelessly to the collective effort, Sterling failed to score as England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. It is impossible to imagine Rooney or Shearer doing likewise in similar circumstances, making that campaign an unhelpful anomaly in any pretentions to greatness.

So, is Sterling's finishing overall as bad as those forgettable moments suggest?

Since his debut, he is the fifth-highest scoring Premier League player on 95, behind Aguero (164), Harry Kane (159), Jamie Vardy (115) and Lukaku (113).

A shot conversion rate of 15.9 per cent tracks below that quartet, with Vardy the most efficient at 22.2 and Lukaku closest to Sterling on 16.7 per cent.

Of the 31 players to have scored 50 or more Premier League goals during that time, Sterling ranks around the middle of the pack, 15th overall in terms of shot conversion – Christian Benteke's tragicomic figure of 8.7 per cent conversion bring up the rear.

In terms of those defined by Opta as 'big chances', Sterling falls into the bottom third of the group in 22nd, having netted 66 and missed 83 over the course of his top-flight career for 44.3 percent.

This is perhaps what you'd expect from a man with a reputation for missing his share of high-profile sitters, but improvements over recent seasons show why he is still able to be on the trajectory of Shearer and Rooney for goal involvements.

The bulk of Sterling's Premier League goals came over the most recent three completed campaigns, with 18 in the 100-point season backed up by 17 to retain the title and 20 last time around – comfortably his three most prolific goalscoring seasons.

Each time, his shot conversion was above 20 per cent, with a high of 22 in 2018-19. The only other time he finished so efficiently was when scoring nine times from 45 attempts during Liverpool's surprise 2013-14 title tilt.

There has been a drop off this time around, with nine goals from 53 attempts amounting to a 17 per cent conversion rate, while he has missed two thirds of the big chances on offer (6/18).

On that metric, he tracked as high as 60 per cent in 2018-19, having registered 53.8 the season before – both success rates to rival any elite forward. Despite the overall strong returns of 2019-20, his big chance conversion rate dipped to 42.4 per cent.

 

The art of the tap-in merchant

This is another criticism some detractors like to level at Sterling: that he is a "tap-in merchant", who simply gorges on Guardiola's feast of football to pad his stats from close range.

But, as Gary Lineker is often keen to point out with a heavy helping of self-deprecation, if it were that easy then everyone would be doing it.

If the misses outlined above suggest a shortfall in Sterling's technique as a finisher, then his capacity to sniff out chances through intelligent and clinical movements stand as one of his main assets.

Throughout his City career, his shots-per-game average has ranged from between 2.3 to 3.3 when split by season. However, his expected goals (xG) figure per 90 minutes increased significantly in those three most prolific campaigns.

In 2017-18, his xG/90 was 0.56, set against 0.21 for Leroy Sane, City's other first-choice winger that year. Sane and Sterling had near-identical xG/90 scores of 0.28 and 0.27 during the previous season, Guardiola's first at the helm.

Despite averaging slightly more shots per game than Sterling in 2019-20 (3.4 to 3.3), Riyad Mahrez's xG/90 was 0.36 compared to his team-mate's 0.64.

This shows Sterling getting himself into notably better scoring areas, with a greater probability of finding the net, than team-mates playing in the same position. Even considering the fact Mahrez appears to have usurped Sterling in Guardiola's pecking order for now, his xG/90 is still half that of the England man in 2020-21 (0.21 vs 0.42).

If this suggests a notable tenacity and relentlessness around the opposition penalty area, Sterling's dribbling ability and productivity when carrying possession underlines the point.

Guardiola values forwards who can bring an unpredictable element to the possession-dominating foundations of his sides and Sterling certainly excels here, showing himself to be one of the most adept players in the division when it comes to running with the ball and making something happen.

Since joining City in 2015-16, he is ranked fifth (251) in the Premier League for shot involvements after a carry – meaning Sterling has either had a shot himself or set up a team-mate to do so.

As with his output in front of goal, Sterling's figures for carries and progressive carries are down this term, but a return to those levels seems comfortably within reach for a player of his age and ability.

At the risk of just loudly shouting, "KICK IT AT THE GOAL, RAHEEM!", he could also shoot more. An uneven return to the starting XI in Saturday's FA Cup win at Everton yielded four attempts on goal, a couple of them fairly wild.

That was up on his season average of 2.3 attempts per 90 minutes. And, if awful misses from close quarters is one of Sterling's main regrettable habits, taking too many touches and checking inside to be crowded out by defenders is another.

 

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi average above five attempts per match. Obviously, there is a lot more to their majestic careers than just shooting a lot, but their continually handsome hauls show the value of a star forward backing themselves.

It feels like a relatively minor tweak that could take Sterling's game to the next level, when considering all his other demonstrable qualities.

A provocative newspaper interview with Marca last season, where he posed with a Real Madrid shirt, showed a man who thinks he belongs on the A-list and the returns of a nine-year Premier League career back that up. Being only the third player to score 100 goals under Guardiola after Messi and Aguero isn't bad, either.

With everything again possible for City on the other side of the international break, Sterling has the perfect platform to put a tricky couple of weeks behind him and step it up once more.

Pep Guardiola has rejected talk of a rift with Raheem Sterling after the Manchester City star was left out of their win over Fulham.

The runaway Premier League leaders breezed to a 3-0 victory against the relegation-threatened Cottagers on Saturday despite Sterling's omission from the squad.

Sterling was quick to dismiss speculation of disharmony between him and Guardiola in a post on Twitter.

He wrote: "Some crazy rumours on socials today... That's absolutely FALSE. Looking forward to a big week with the team."

And Guardiola indicated all is well in their relationship, insisting it is normal for players to be dissatisfied at not being involved.

"He travels with the team for tomorrow of course. All the squad travel to Budapest," the City boss said ahead of their Champions League last-16 second-leg clash with Borussia Monchengladbach. 

"Raheem and all the players always train and react very well. I don't expect the guys who are not selected are happy. It is normal.

"It has happened since football was created. Raheem in this case has been so important and is so important

"He [Sterling] doesn't need to do it [dismiss the rumours]. Nothing happened, he was not selected, that's all.

"Sometimes during the season when we travel to Stamford Bridge, we had 14 players and the rest from academy, that's easy to do the selection.

"When you have 30 players, top-class players, incredible success in the past, recent past, present, always it will be hard for most of them.

"That is the point. I have 20 players, I trust them, I love them, they are the main reason we are in the position we are in the Premier League, Champions League, final for the Carabao Cup, FA Cup.

"They're the reason why, I understand completely, that game he was not selected, another game with other players, it's no more than that."

All eyes will be on Emirates Stadium on Sunday when Tottenham chase a first league double over Arsenal in the north London derby since 1992-93.

Premier League leaders Manchester City are also in the capital, giving struggling Fulham a tough task at Craven Cottage in Saturday's late kick-off.

The most intriguing tactical battle of the weekend could come at Elland Road, where Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United host Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea, while West Ham are likely to face a thorough examination of their top-four ambitions at Manchester United.

Here, we give a few pointers on which players could come up trumps in fantasy football terms.

DEAN HENDERSON

England goalkeeper Henderson has not played too frequently since opting to make a go of things with parent club Manchester United.

But when he has featured for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side, the 24-year-old has generally impressed, even if his midweek outing against Milan in the Europa League contained an unwanted sting in the tail.

If David de Gea is absent once more against West Ham, Henderson's 19 saves from 22 shots faced in the Premier League this season suggests the United goal is in safe hands. His save percentage of 86.4 is the best of any goalkeeper to have played more than one game this season.

AARON CRESSWELL

Given the dearth of natural left-back options available to England manager Gareth Southgate, a strong season at West Ham for Cresswell could turn out to have been perfectly timed.

The full-back is also a threat in opposition territory, with his seven assists more than any other defender in the division. It is a left-back dominated list, with Lucas Digne up next on six from Andy Robertson, Luke Shaw (both five) and Southgate's first choice Ben Chilwell (four).

Seven assists also matches the most productive season of Cresswell's career in that regard, having provided the same number in 2017-18.

CESAR AZPILICUETA

Tuchel has overseen a defensive transformation since taking over from Frank Lampard, tightening up an unhelpfully leaky backline.

Club captain Azpilicueta has been a pillar of this turnaround. His eight clean sheets are the most for any Premier League defender in 2021.

Azpilicueta is one ahead of rejuvenated club-mate Antonio Rudiger, while Manchester City centre-backs John Stones and Ruben Dias and Manchester United duo Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka similarly have seven apiece.

WILFRIED ZAHA

Relegation-haunted West Brom would be forgiven for dreading the sight of Crystal Palace winger Zaha.

In his past four outings against the Baggies, the Ivory Coast international has scored four times.

That run includes a second-half brace from when Palace hammered the Baggies 5-1 at The Hawthorns in December – a result that would prove influential in Slaven Bilic's sacking later that month.

RAHEEM STERLING

England forward Sterling sat out City's 5-2 win over Southampton in midweek after his latest disappointment in the derby against United.

His native London is a far happier hunting ground, with the 26-year-old amassing 16 goal involvements (10 goals and six assists) in his previous 16 Premier League starts in the English capital.

Sterling continued that streak last time out at Emirates Stadium, heading the only goal early on in a 1-0 win over Arsenal.

GARETH BALE

This weekend, another wide forward on a hot streak will be foremost in Arsenal's thoughts.

A revitalised Bale scored twice in a 4-1 win over Palace last weekend, meaning he has had a hand in six goals in his past four top-flight appearances (four goals and two assists).

And, if you believe the form book stays on this side of the window on derby day, the Wales star has five Premier League goals against Arsenal – more than against any other side in his career.

DOMINIC CALVERT-LEWIN

As the battle for a top-four finish hots up, sides in the chasing pack will need players to weigh in with 'heavy' goals.

Thankfully for Everton, no player's goals in the Premier League this season have been worth more in terms of points gained than Calvert-Lewin's.

The centre-forward, who was rewarded with an England breakthrough following a sensational start to the campaign, has netted 13 times in the league this season – strikes that have won a total of 14 points.

Burnley, this weekend's visitors to Goodison Park, could be the next team to add to his tally.

Raheem Sterling believes Manchester City's slender win over Arsenal proved the Premier League leaders are able to dig out results in their bid to reclaim the title.

City made it 13 top-flight victories in a row as Sterling's second-minute header proved decisive at the Emirates Stadium.

Pep Guardiola's juggernaut are 10 points clear at the top of the table though, after a blistering start, they failed to replicate their best form on Sunday.

It mattered little, though, with Arsenal managing just one shot on target as City held them at arm's length to win an 18th successive game in all competitions.

City have also equalled the record for consecutive away wins by an English top-flight team across all competitions (11), which was previously set by them between May and November 2017.

Though they were not at their free-flowing best, Sterling cited their display as another sign of improvement.

"We moved the ball well, we were really aggressive in the first five minutes," Sterling, who has scored more away goals in the Premier League (20) than any other player since the start of last season, told Sky Sports.

"Kept the pressure on, got the goal early on. They're a good team, you can see how well they play on the counter. You could see we struggled at times with that but we kept our composure and ground the result out.

"Mikel's worked with us for plenty of years, he knows exactly our strengths and our weaknesses. I wouldn't be surprised if he spent a lot of time trying to find gaps in our team – they made it really difficult for us.

"It's even better now because we had a difficult start to the season. It was something we’re not used to. It's a credit to the team, we started to dig results out. Winning teams, you have to dig results out when it really matters."

City are unbeaten in their last 25 games across all competitions (W22 D3) – their second-longest run without defeat under Guardiola, following a 28-game spell between April and December 2017.

This was also City's 15th clean sheet in the Premier League this season – the most by a team after 25 games of a top-flight campaign since 2008-09, when both Manchester United (19) and Chelsea (15) had as many.

After he was rested against his former club Everton, John Stones returned to partner Ruben Dias at the back, and Sterling hailed the defensive solidity which has been mastered by City, who have conceded just three goals in their winning run in the league.

"The centre-back pairings have been great this season, they've got a really great understanding," Sterling said.

"There's a real unity and bond in there. It's like anything – if I'm scoring goals I'm trying to keep the run [going] and you can see it's the same with them and clean sheets."

Manchester City made it 13 consecutive Premier League victories as Pep Guardiola's team cast aside Arsenal 1-0 thanks to Raheem Sterling's early header.

Hunting an eighth straight win over the Gunners, City made a supreme start which was capped by Sterling's 13th goal of the season for the club in all competitions.

After 30 minutes of dominance, City rather took their foot off the accelerator, though Ederson only had one save to make as City maintained their superb defensive record.

Though they ultimately laboured to victory, City have now won their last 18 games across all competitions, and their march towards the title is showing no sign of slowing.

Sterling had been involved in six goals in his last five Premier League appearances against Arsenal heading into Sunday's game, and he added to that tally inside the opening two minutes.

Having already sliced wide, Sterling was left unmarked to leap up and glance Riyad Mahrez's cross from the right beyond Bernd Leno.

Sterling has only scored more league goals against Bournemouth than against Arsenal, and he would have had a second in this game if not for Leno's later save.

Though City's assault continued – Ilkay Gundogan and Mahrez squandering presentable chances – Arsenal, driven by Bukayo Saka, wrested some control as the first half went on.

Kevin De Bruyne's lob landed wide early in the second half, while Leno was at full stretch to deny German compatriot Gundogan.

De Bruyne's comeback ended with just over an hour gone, Gabriel Jesus replacing the City playmaker.

Joao Cancelo caused problems for Ederson with a dreadful pass – Mohamed Elneny drilling wide from the City goalkeeper's sliced clearance.

Cancelo looked set to atone when he found space in the box, only to prod wide, though City kept Arsenal at arm's length to ensure the full-back's miss did not cost them as their remarkable run rolled on.


What does it mean? City stumble, rather than stomp, to another victory

A 10-point lead at the top of the Premier League shows City's commanding grip over their rivals. Since losing 2-1 at Emirates Stadium in December 2015, City are unbeaten in their last 11 Premier League meetings with Arsenal, who have not been a factor in this year's title race.

The Gunners sit in 10th – 25 points shy of City. Arsenal have now won just three of their last 19 Premier League games when facing the side who started the day of the match in top spot (W3 D4 L12).

Sterling shoots down the Gunners yet again

Sterling has now been involved in more league goals than any other City player this season (14 – nine goals, five assists), while he has scored home and away against Arsenal in each of the last two seasons.

The 26-year-old is also the third player to score in three consecutive away games against Arsenal in the Premier League, after Nicolas Anelka (four games, ending in May 2009) and Ian Harte (three games, ending in May 2003).

Anonymous Aubameyang

After a stuttering start to the season, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has come up big for Arsenal lately, and he went into the game looking to become the first Gunners player to score two goals in three consecutive league starts since Derek Tapscott in March 1956.

However, you will not get many goals if you do not manage a shot, and Aubameyang did not have one effort throughout the match, while he also failed to create any chances.

What's next?

Both sides are in European action in midweek – City facing Borussia Monchengladbach in the Champions League on Wednesday, while Arsenal travel to Athens to face Benfica in the second leg of their Europa League tie.

Manchester City appear to be cruising towards the Premier League title and will look to extend a 17-match winning run away to Mikel Arteta's Arsenal.

While top spot is firmly in their hands, the chasing back have plenty to play for, with Manchester United in need of a win at home to Newcastle United and Tottenham heading to West Ham for a tough London derby.

Chelsea's winning streak under Thomas Tuchel has put them firmly back into top-four contention, and Timo Werner's welcome return to goalscoring could have come at a critical time.

That said, fantasy football managers would also be wise to consider Danny Ings, whose impressive scoring record will be of concern to Tuchel's men.

 

EMILIANO MARTINEZ

Aston Villa's reported £20million spend on Emiliano Martinez is a candidate for the best piece of Premier League business this season.

Martinez kept his 12th clean sheet of the season to help Villa grind out a draw at Brighton and Hove Albion last time out.

The former Arsenal man is just the fifth Villa keeper in the Premier League era to keep at least 10 clean sheets in a season and is only three short of Brad Friedel's tally set back in 2009-10. Leicester City's impressive attack could have met its match.

 

LUKE SHAW

Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw has enjoyed perhaps his best season for the club, with his form rarely affected despite his team's up-and-down recent results.

He has provided an assist in each of his previous three appearances, registering five in total this term, his best tally in a single league season.

Against a struggling Newcastle side, Shaw could become only the fourth United player to assist a goal in four consecutive games, after Ryan Giggs, Nani and Antonio Valencia.

LEWIS DUNK

Brighton have not conceded more than one goal in any game since drawing 3-3 with Wolves on January 2.

On Saturday, they host a Crystal Palace side who have failed to score in a higher share of their away league games this season (58 per cent) than in any other campaign in the competition's history.

A clean sheet for Brighton and Lewis Dunk looks likely, and given the centre-back has scored more goals (six) than any other defender except Virgil van Dijk (also six) since the start of 2019-20, he could be worth the captaincy this weekend.

 

RAHEEM STERLING

If Arsenal are to stop City's run, they will need to keep Raheem Sterling quiet.

The England forward has scored seven times in the league against the Gunners – he has only scored more often against Watford, West Ham and Bournemouth.

Sterling has netted in all three of his previous league meetings with Arsenal and has registered four goals and two assists in his most recent five games against them.

SON HEUNG-MIN

West Ham have rarely gone into recent games with Tottenham as favourites, but they are six points ahead of Jose Mourinho's men in the table, after playing a game more.

However, they will have to contend with Son Heung-min if that points gap is going to grow. The South Korea star has been involved in six goals in his past five league games with the Hammers and assisted in each of the last three.

In fact, he has assisted more goals (four) against West Ham than he has against any other side in the Premier League.

 

TIMO WERNER

Timo Werner ended his league goal drought against Newcastle United last time out, scoring exactly 1,000 minutes after his previous effort against Sheffield United in November.

Despite that much-publicised goal drought, Werner has actually been directly involved in more goals (10) in the league than any other Chelsea player this season, while only Mason Mount (105) has had a hand in more shots (73).

With his confidence beginning to grow, this could be a good time to back the Germany striker in your selection.

DANNY INGS

Southampton have lost six games in a row since knocking Arsenal out of the FA Cup in the fourth round, so backing a win over Chelsea would seem a little bold.

Still, expecting Danny Ings to be among the goals is usually a safer bet.

The striker has the best minutes-per-goal ratio of any Saints player with at least 15 in the competition, averaging one every 161 minutes.

In-form Raheem Sterling scored his 12th goal of the season as Manchester City cruised into the FA Cup quarter-finals and made history with a 3-1 victory at Swansea City.

Pep Guardiola's irrepressible side eased to a 15th consecutive win - a record for an English top-flight club - at the Liberty Stadium to stay in the hunt for an unprecedented quadruple.

Kyle Walker opened the scoring with a cross and two goals in the space of three minutes early in the second half put the Premier League leaders out of sight.

Championship promotion contenders Swansea were outclassed as the City juggernaut rolled on, although they did suffer a blow when Rodri was forced off with an injury before Morgan Whittaker pulled a goal back.

Jesus received treatment on his ankle early on, but was able to continue and the striker missed a chance to opening the scoring when he steered Benjamin Mendy's cross wide.

Swansea were chasing shadows as City dominated, knocking the ball around with a swagger, and Ferran Torres' shot from a tight angle was brilliantly tipped wide by Freddy Woodman.

Woodman was beaten on the half-hour mark, though, when Walker's centre from the right evaded everybody and found the far corner of the net.

Marc Guehi nodded wide at the other end in a rare Swansea attack, but an unmarked Sterling finished clinically when he was well picked by Rodri two minutes into the second half.

Swansea were caught out again soon after, with Jesus controlling a clever cushioned header back across goal from Bernardo Silva in an instant and swivelling to fire home with his left foot.

Joel Latibeaudiere somehow denied Mendy a tap-in with great last-ditch defending and Rodri limped off before Whittaker superbly gave the hosts a consolation, drilling in left-footed for his first Swansea goal.

Phil Foden must be "calm" and "humble" as the plaudits flow his way, according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Foden completed the scoring in Sunday's 4-1 win over Premier League champions Liverpool at Anfield, having also had a hand in each of Ilkay Gundogan's two second-half goals.

The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has 10 goals for City in all competitions this season and has played an integral part in them establishing a five-point lead at the top of the table.

However, Guardiola was critical of Foden's performance in the false nine role before half-time on Merseyside and, speaking ahead of Wednesday's FA Cup trip to Swansea City, said he felt Raheem Sterling was City's standout weekend performer.

"I said to [Foden], 'Don't read much, don't listen much, keep your feet on the grass and keep going'," Guardiola said, before waxing lyrical about Sterling after the England star won a penalty and scored a close-range header against his former club.

"Nobody talks much about Raheem and, at Anfield, Raheem made his best game of the last two months. By far.

"He was key in the first goal, for the penalty in the first half. Every action he made was decisive in the final third.

"Of course Phil was so important in the goals, especially in the fantastic last one.

"But Raheem was fundamental for us and hopefully, because he was a little bit not in the best form in the last month, he can continue to maintain the level he played at Anfield."

Foden will be reunited with Steve Cooper on Wednesday when Guardiola's City chase an English record - a 15th consecutive win for a top flight team.

The Swansea boss coached England to success in the 2017 U-17 World Cup, where the young Mancunian was named player of the tournament.

From that point, Guardiola has faced repeated calls to grant the playmaker more minutes at City.

A strand of post-match analysis at the weekend argued the former Barcelona boss had nurtured his latest star perfectly, but Guardiola does not necessarily view it that way and also stated Foden should not consider himself an automatic selection.

"I didn’t plan to handle the way we did it with Phil," Guardiola said. "Sometimes he played and he didn’t deserve to play.

"Normally we want to increase and talk a lot, a lot, a lot about Phil but after that we'll punish him, you know? For one mistake in this private life, we know exactly what happened [Foden was sent home from England duty last September for breaking coronavirus protocols].

"Now it's just [about being] calm. I know Phil is ready to play, His physical condition is extraordinary.

"I will handle it the same way and have handled it. When I believe he can help us he is going to play; when I believe another one deserves to play he is not going to play."

Indeed, with Foden the toast of the present moment in English football, Guardiola challenged him to turn a rich vein of form into the sort of longevity that separates the best from the rest.

"He has to be calm and understand tough periods will come. It depends on him being humble and his love for the game," Guardiola added of a player who recently brought up 100 senior appearances for City.

"We’ll see if he can handle it. Now the people expect him every game to do exceptional things, this is the most important thing.

"It's difficult to play 100 games but the important thing is to do 100 more and 100 more at this level. This is the toughest.

"This is why the best players did not do one action at Anfield; they play five years in a row, being consistent, not injured. Playing, playing, playing.

"This is the next target for Phil, maintain there as high as possible, as much and as long as possible.

"It depends absolutely on him. Hopefully he can do it."

There was more penalty drama for Manchester City as the Premier League leaders visited reigning champions Liverpool on Sunday.

Gundogan skied his spot-kick at an empty Anfield, although it would not prove a costly miss as City ran out 4-1 winners to extend their advantage at the summit.

Pep Guardiola will no doubt be keen to correct a remarkable failing in his outstanding side's game, however.

City's record from 12 yards features in our quirky facts from the weekend's top-flight action.
 

Sterling's penchant for pens wasted at City

As Gundogan, who later scored twice, blazed over in front of the Kop, it meant City have now accounted for four of the past six Premier League spot-kicks to miss the target - including three against Liverpool (also Riyad Mahrez in October 2018 and Kevin De Bruyne in November 2020).

City are five points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand but could be in an even more commanding position if they were more clinical from the spot.

In Raheem Sterling, City boast the player who has won more penalties (21) than any other in Premier League history, the latest seeing Fabinho trip the former Liverpool forward.

Sterling is unlikely to ease his side's penalty woes, however, having scored just one of his four attempts in the competition.

Only two players in Premier League history have a worse record after taking at least four penalties, with Mike Newell and Juninho Paulista each missing all their four attempts.

Nick Barmby, like Sterling, netted one of four. No player in the competition has ever taken five or more penalties and converted fewer than two.
 

Lloris longevity leading Ronaldo and Messi

Tottenham captain Hugo Lloris made his 500th top-flight appearance in the 2-0 win over West Brom, keeping his 173rd clean sheet.

Since his Ligue 1 bow for Nice in March 2006, no player has appeared more often in Europe's top five leagues than the World Cup-winning France goalkeeper.

Second on the list over that span is another goalkeeper still going strong in Inter's Samir Handanovic on 493 games, coincidentally also registering 173 clean sheets.

And the two biggest names of all sit third and fourth, Cristiano Ronaldo on 484 appearances just ahead of Lionel Messi's 480.

Karim Benzema (463) makes the top 10, while David Silva (448), Sergio Ramos (446) and Sergio Aguero (443) are all in the top 20.
 

Saints star not quite the free-kick king

James Ward-Prowse's latest free-kick goal came in a losing effort for Southampton at Newcastle United, but he nudged further up the all-time Premier League standings.

The spectacular effort at St James' Park was the England international's 10th direct free-kick strike in the competition, becoming the ninth player to that mark.

Ward-Prowse has scored with 13.9 per cent of his 72 direct free-kick shots, while 37 per cent of his 27 Premier League goals have come via this method.

Only Laurent Robert (11 of 23 goals for 47.8 per cent) and Sebastian Larsson (11 of 26 goals for 42.3 per cent) netted a greater share of their goals in the competition direct from set-pieces.

Ward-Prowse still has some way to go to match David Beckham's record of 20 free-kick goals, however. Thierry Henry (12), Gianfranco Zola (12) and Ronaldo (11), along with Robert and Larsson, are the others still above the Southampton star.

His tally of four this term trails only Beckham in 2000-01 and Robert the following season (both five) over a single campaign.

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