Sterling seeks City vindication in Cup final

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling (left) in action against Everton's Gareth Barry in their League Cup semi-final. He will face Liverpool in the final today and Pellegrini says that although it is never easy to play against a former club, Sterling is
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling (left) in action against Everton's Gareth Barry in their League Cup semi-final. He will face Liverpool in the final today and Pellegrini says that although it is never easy to play against a former club, Sterling is a "professional player" and has nothing to prove.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Today, Raheem Sterling has the chance he craves - to be a match-winner in a major final, when he steps out for Manchester City against Liverpool in the League Cup showpiece.

If he is pivotal to his new club winning a first trophy since the 2014 Premier League title, a season of promise pocked by inconsistency will become one of undoubted success, after his controversial £49 million (S$95.7 million) transfer from City's Wembley opponents.

As Manuel Pellegrini, his manager, said: "If we win a couple of titles and Raheem has an important performance, it will be a good season for him. He has done good things, bad things and was very important the other day (against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League).

"He continues to improve and give a lot of things to our squad. He has a lot of speed, good technique, goals - that's why we bought him. He can be very successful but it depends on the way he improves."

He would be vindicated, too, by a City win today. The irony is this is precisely the kind of occasion Sterling felt he could experience only by leaving Anfield. To see Liverpool barring his way to a first piece of silverware illustrates the vagaries of sport, though the driven 21-year-old will not care.

Pellegrini added: "For every player it is never comfortable to play against an old team. Everyone has links, friends inside the club. But he is a professional player. He came here to win titles. I'm sure he will have a very good performance. I don't think he has anything to prove."

Sterling has 10 goals for City and should score the two required to beat his best haul for Liverpool.

He claimed a maiden league hat-trick - in October's 5-1 win over Bournemouth - and his passing accuracy has increased from last year's 81.11 per cent to 85.6 per cent.

But it is in the Champions League where Sterling has shone, on the two occasions a performance was required. As Pellegrini notes, in Wednesday evening's 3-1 victory in Kiev in the last-16 opening leg, Sterling broke the tie open by creating the first two goals.

He claimed the corner that led to Sergio Aguero's strike and then, after his football brain found him space to receive the Argentinian's back-heel, a cross removed the defence, and David Silva could not miss.

The display complemented Sterling winning City their crucial group match, at Sevilla, which sealed qualification two matches early. He tore Unai Emery's side open, opening the scoring and creating Fernandinho's second in another impressive 3-1 win.

The holy grail is consistency. Kevin de Bruyne, another summer arrival, instantly delivered with 12 goals and 12 assists before suffering a knee injury in January.

Sterling is yet to perform week in week out. He has not scored in the league this year, with his last goal coming on Jan 30 in a 4-0 FA Cup victory at Aston Villa. He has two league assists compared with last season's seven, and with 12 games remaining he has a challenge to better that 2014-15 total.

For now, Sterling, who is from Wembley, will fulfil a dream of playing a Cup final at his local stadium. He hopes to achieve another and win a trophy. It would surely be all the sweeter for him to do that against Liverpool.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Sterling seeks City vindication in Cup final'. Print Edition | Subscribe