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Raheem Sterling has never had it so good.
He is at the top of the Premier League, Manchester City’s leading goalscorer and is about to be offered staggering terms on a fresh contract as reward for his sensational form.
Suddenly, the haters have gone quiet. And the snake emojis from Liverpool fans have all but disappeared from his social media posts.
Sterling is proving exactly why he pressed for that controversial switch from Anfield to the Etihad Stadium in 2015.
It was a big decision. He knew people were accusing him of being a money-grubber, and he knew public perception was that he was an arrogant guy. But he retained focus, stayed tight with the same friends and family he had grown up with and made sure he would fulfil his potential.
Pep Guardiola’s arrival as manager in 2016 helped push him to a new level—no doubt about that—but ahead of a return to Anfield on Sunday, Sterling is regarded as one of the hottest properties in Europe.
And sources are suggesting Real Madrid are monitoring him as a future target.
“Nothing is imminent, but Sterling is in Madrid’s thoughts,” a well-placed contact told B/R. “It’s no wonder City are trying to secure his long-term future. He is in a very good moment.”
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If we cast our minds back to April 2015, perhaps interest from the Santiago Bernabeu should come as no surprise. Los Blancos manager Zinedine Zidane, then in charge of Real Madrid Castilla, declared that Sterling was among the top young players on Madrid’s radar, per the Guardian.
That was when he was at Liverpool. He has since come on leaps and bounds, and Zidane’s crop is beginning to look in need of some modern flair.
Sterling is an ambitious, confident player and would back himself to succeed in La Liga. Whether he signs a new contract this season will not matter too much.
Despite the public perception, he isn’t in this for the money. City are willing boost his pay to £250,000 per week, but sources close to the player insist he is not pushing for the rise. In fact, he would be willing to wait until the season is over before thinking about any new contract.
“Money is everywhere in top-level football, and I can’t change that,” Sterling told me in an interview last season.
When you spend time with him, you realise most of his public image is misplaced—and that winning things does mean more to him than his bank balance.
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To leave City anytime soon would perhaps be an even bigger decision than the one to move on from Merseyside. They are undoubtedly one of Europe’s elite sides, and Sterling knows the role Guardiola has played in expanding his limits.
Before arriving at Manchester City, Guardiola had Sterling in his sights as a player he could transform. He felt the England international was capable of becoming the team’s game-changer.
Once he took over the reins, he made his intentions clear about how he could make Sterling a concrete part of City’s plans.
A City source explained: “Pep told him that he should cut out the square passes, stop putting his foot on the ball and turning back. The manager’s vision was that Raz would always take players on and had to make forward passes whenever he could. If that didn’t happen, he would be on the bench.”
Sterling spent Guardiola’s first season in charge adapting to the coach’s instructions and this season began perfectly putting all the different parts of his game into action.
He has become more forceful in the opposing half, he is more ruthless around the penalty box and he is the man who wins big games.
Sterling has 18 goals and seven assists from 29 matches this season, and among the goals are those late strikes he has made his speciality. Bournemouth, Southampton, Huddersfield Town, Feyenoord, Napoli, Shakhtar Donetsk and Everton have all felt the 23-year-old’s force beyond the 84th minute this term.
The City source added: “It is no coincidence that he has become City’s most decisive player this season. It is something that has been worked on for some time.”
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Sterling deserves credit for the way he has adapted his game to thrive in one of Europe’s best sides.
He made a conscious decision to ensure he did not become a bit-part player. And last summer, the trio of Sterling, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus vowed to help each other in any way they could in order to be part of the team’s success.
As Sterling heads back to Liverpool, he will do so with his head held high.
A first Premier League winner’s medal is almost secured, UEFA Champions League glory seems within his reach and he is laughing loudly at all the people who said he was making a mistake by moving to Manchester.
Moving to City was about challenging himself and proving he could be regarded as one of the world’s elite players.
If he continues to thrive, it may well be that he is tempted into another test—this time as a Galactico.