Man City, Sterling must rally and shrug off Leeds United shock with bigger games ahead

MANCHESTER, England — It says a lot about Raheem Sterling‘s current standing at Manchester City then when Pep Guardiola picked a reserve team to play Leeds United, he was in it. And if it was a chance for Sterling to show that he should be playing a more prominent role in City’s hunt for the quadruple, the England winger is unlikely to feel he made the most.

It was not Sterling’s fault that City were surprised 2-1 by Leeds at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday — far from it — but there was little in his afternoon’s work to suggest he should be in the team to face Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarterfinal, second leg, on Wednesday.

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The home side played against 10 men for more than 45 minutes after Liam Cooper was sent off for a vicious, knee-high challenge on Gabriel Jesus, but Sterling and his teammates could not take advantage of the extra space and in the end, it was Leeds who walked off celebrating when Stuart Dallas raced through in stoppage time to score his second of the game.

Their victory was achieved with 29% possession and two shots on target.

In terms of City’s ambitions this season, a second defeat from their past 29 games will not do much to alter the destination of the Premier League title, but it may affect Sterling’s prospects of being front and centre in the team when the stakes are higher. Before April is over, City play Dortmund in their Champions League quarterfinal second leg, Chelsea in the semifinal of the FA Cup and Tottenham in the Carabao Cup final.

“We played a real good game,” said Guardiola. “The goal we gave them, in behind, we were solid and make mistakes for a counter-attack. We did not control it. In the last 10 minutes they had other chances, they are fast and can do it. When they defend in the way they were, you have to stop them running and we did not do that.

“What happens when you lose a game, you realise how difficult it is what we have done so far. When Liverpool lose a game in Anfield after two or three or four years you realise how difficult it is what they have done. Now we have to do it again.

“The next four games, three are like finals — Champions League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup. We have confidence in the games. Defeat sometimes is necessary to understand how difficult it is what we have done.”

Guardiola chose to rest his main men against Leeds, with Kevin De Bruyne, Ruben Dias, Kyle Walker and Ilkay Gundogan all named among the substitutes. Sterling, meanwhile, was handed just his first league start since the defeat to Manchester United a month ago. Asked ahead of the game why Sterling had started just one of the last six matches in all competitions, Guardiola’s answer was simple: Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden are in better form.

“Right now, I decided because I see Riyad and Phil in incredible, incredible, incredible top form,” said Guardiola in his pre-match news conference. “This is the only reason why, there is not another one. He [Sterling] is important for the team and the club, there’s no doubt about that. That was the reason for the selections.”

There was a time not so long ago when Sterling was the first name on Guardiola’s team sheet, but not any more. Without a club goal since February, he looks short of confidence and there was a moment 10 minutes from time on Saturday that summed it up. With City pushing for a goal, Sterling picked up the ball inside his own half and raced towards the Leeds defence. He had options left and right, but when the time came to pass or shoot, he seemed unsure of what to do, and the move was snuffed out.

One dart into the box and a snapshot at Illan Meslier in the first half was greeted with shouts of “brilliant, Raz” from the City substitutes, but it proved to be the extent of the threat he posed to Marcelo Bielsa ‘s side.

The clinical edge that helped Sterling score 79 goals in three seasons between 2017 and 2020 seems, temporarily, to be missing. Last season he got 31 goals in 52 games. This season, it’s 13 from 40.

“We did not create enough for the forwards, it is part of the game,” said Guardiola. “The best moment we had in the game we make a mistake behind, and we tried but could not score. We are going to rest and prepare two days for the game in Dortmund and decide on how we are going to play.”

City could have as many as 13 games to play in the last seven weeks of the season, and Guardiola will need his entire squad. But with the title all but wrapped up, there are only a handful that really matter. and for those, Guardiola will need his best team. At the moment, it does not include Sterling.

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