It takes a special kind of player to thrive in the Bernabeu. Raheem Sterling has got what it takes. Tonight, when Manchester City face Real Madrid in the knockout round of the Champions League, the winger will have a chance to prove it.
The spotlight is on Sterling after last week’s interview with AS, the Spanish sports newspaper, was interpreted by many as a public flirtation with Real. The 25-year-old undoubtedly enjoys the attention and there will be plenty more to come. When the 13-time European champions go looking for their next galactico, the Englishman will be near the top of their list.
Sterling’s peak years are, barring injury, still in front of him. His career has been characterised by almost constant improvement. When he does plateau, it will be at a rarefied height. There are probably two clubs who could both afford Sterling and appeal to him and Real are the one most likely to be in the market for an attacker of his type.
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City’s two-year Champions League ban has put some doubt into the minds of their squad even though the message from the boardroom is that the sentence will be overturned and the players have nothing to worry about. Prolonged suspension from European football’s most important competition would clearly have an impact on the team, but Sterling’s future is more likely to be defined by the man’s own ambition. Life at the Etihad has been good but if there are better prospects elsewhere, he would be foolish not to take them.
One of the lessons Sterling learnt at Liverpool was that players do not always get the treatment they deserve at clubs. He was underpaid throughout his period on Merseyside and misused at times on the pitch. There is a clear sense that the Anfield hierarchy never fully appreciated the potential of the youngster.
Teammates who were significantly less productive were given much more respect, status and rewarded with bigger paycheques. After the departure of Luis Suarez, Sterling was the emerging star in a poor team but his contribution was often downplayed and his commitment questioned. No wonder he was so keen to leave. His exit policy was misguided and left him vulnerable in the PR war but he was justified in believing he was undervalued.
He has not had that problem at the Etihad. In financial terms and on the pitch it has been a productive relationship. There have been no questions about his professionalism while at City. Sterling has developed as a person, too, and his involvement in anti-racism initiatives shows a man who has matured into a substantial figure in the game and one who has the confidence to speak his mind. He has developed in so many ways under Pep Guardiola, so why would he ever entertain moving away from City?
Professionalism is a two-edged sword. It means doing everything possible to get the best results for the team. It also means that any sensible professional should divorce emotion from the job. Players are not fans and need to do the best for their future.
Realistically, Real are the game’s apex predators. When they come knocking on the door, it’s hard to say no.
That time could be close. Eden Hazard fractured his ankle in Real’s 1-0 defeat by Levante on Saturday and will probably miss the rest of the season. The Belgian has been a profound disappointment in the Spanish capital since his move from Chelsea in the summer. Injuries have hampered the 29-year-old’s progress in La Liga and the wear and tear of six seasons in the Premier League, the most physically exacting top-flight division in Europe, seem to have taken their toll. Sterling has many of the same qualities as Hazard and is fresher.
To succeed at Real takes more than fitness, though, especially as Zinedine Zidane continues to struggle to fill the vacuum left by Cristiano Ronaldo. It takes a special kind of driving ambition to thrive as the focus of attention in the Bernabeu. Hazard is intelligent and considered but is perhaps too thoughtful to assume such a role. Sterling is a different kind of character with the single-mindedness required to succeed in Madrid.
Tonight none of this will matter. Sunday’s EFL Cup final against Aston Villa notwithstanding, the only way Guardiola’s team can save the season is by winning the Champions League for the first time. Sterling will be completely focused on taking City through to the last eight of the competition. The last time the English club were in the stadium was four years ago in the semi-finals. City started with high hopes and Sterling on the bench but the winger’s introduction for the closing half-hour could not prevent Real winning 1-0, a decisive victory after the goalless first leg at the Etihad.
This evening the England forward will be centre stage rather than merely providing a cameo. City require the sort of display from him that will get their hosts checking their bank balance and licking their lips. This is not an audition for Sterling but, one way or another, it could be a game that defines a career.
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