‘First and foremost everyone knows what that game means to me’, wrote Raheem Sterling.
Thus began his apology for the clash with Liverpool’s defender Joe Gomez whilst on international duty for England.
It has been a busy fortnight for the Manchester City winger. The drama began on 10 November, with Sterling unable to help City end their history of Anfield misery in a 3-1 defeat.
Afterwards, Sterling was guilty of allowing a brief altercation with Gomez to fester in his mind.
The decision to seek retribution in a canteen at St. George’s Park was imprudent. It is reassuring that Sterling has publicly accepted full responsibility for the incident. However, his contrition was not enough to prevent Gareth Southgate excluding him from the qualifier against Montenegro.
Sterling’s morale must have been hit by the embarrassment of this; the wisdom of Southgate’s decision remains in question. However, Sterling is more than used to receiving unflattering attention in the press.
In the past, merely a trip to Greggs would provoke a cynical Daily Mail article.
He has had to learn to become immune to the media circus. Instead, Sterling can use the negativity to inspire him, as it has done in the past, in his efforts to remedy City’s faltering start this season.
Against Liverpool, in spite of the hostile crowd, Sterling was City’s most dangerous player. He had the beating of Trent Alexander-Arnold each time he got the ball. Indeed, that was why in the latter stages of the game Jürgen Klopp decided to send Gomez on to try and shackle Sterling.
Beneath the glistening surface of City’s superlative side lies a formidable fighting spirit. This is embodied by Sterling. His commitment has underpinned his transformation from an inconsistent and wasteful winger into one of Europe’s most efficient forwards.
Sterling was awarded the Etihad Player of the Month for his efforts in October that included a Champions League hattrick against Atalanta. With 14 goals in 17 appearances so far, he is on course to break his career-high tally of 25 goals attained last year.
City fans will be hoping that the Gomez incident does not threaten to derail Sterling’s impressive start. In the aftermath of the Anfield defeat that pushed City down to the bottom of a nine point ladder, further setbacks for Pep Guardiola’s side can be ill-afforded.
The club’s upcoming fixtures are difficult.
Frank Lampard’s nascent and energetic Chelsea are welcomed to the Etihad on Saturday. A repeat of last season’s 6-0 bulldozing is not likely. Sterling was at his impish best that game, scoring twice and running rings around César Azpilicueta.
With Leroy Sane still sidelined and Bernardo Silva banned, the pressure will be on Sterling to replicate that performance. After Chelsea, games against Newcastle (A), Burnley (A), Manchester United (H) and Arsenal (A) follow. The title race with Liverpool will be determined by City’s ability to keep pace during this testing period.
The scratch on Gomez’s face after Sterling’s confrontation may prove to be overshadowed by the greater scar inflicted on relations between Manchester City and Liverpool. The booing that greeted Gomez’s substitute appearance against Montenegro will only have exacerbated the risk of bad-blood.
Sterling rallied behind his teammate on Twitter. The winger confessed that it hurt to see Gomez booed and accepted the blame. Southgate claimed that the tweet represented ‘closure’ on the tumultuous episode.
It may be the case that there is no permanent damage to the relationship between Sterling and Gomez, but it will intensify tribalism between City and Liverpool fans.
The initial altercation at Anfield was symptomatic of a simmering tension between the two sides that has threatened to boil over.
For two seasons now they have been each other’s greatest source of domestic competition. Klopp has transformed Liverpool into the side best placed to loosen Guardiola’s grip on English football. Naturally, this has manifested itself in a greater intensity on and off the pitch.
It is questionable whether the fractious relationship that has developed between the clubs, aggravated by the Sterling-Gomez clash, will affect the run-in.
🗣️ Pep Guardiola:
“When you are not getting results you can be sacked but in this case if the club [Man City] wants me, I want to stay.
— Man City Xtra (@City_Xtra) November 22, 2019
Klopp and Guardiola have created sides that are far too focused to permit such distractions. It will ensure, though, that Liverpool’s visit to the Etihad in April will have an additional edge to it.
Sterling may have achieved it in an unsightly manner, but the drama has demonstrated how much the game against Liverpool meant to him.
City fans will now be hoping he can put the incident behind him and instead channel that fighting spirit towards placing pressure on Klopp’s league-leaders.
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