Injury takes struggling Sterling out of firing line

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was determined to keep playing Raheem Sterling, sure that a regular run of games — and not a spell out of the team — would help the England winger recover the scoring form that recently had deserted him.

Now that decision has been taken out of Guardiola’s hands.

City’s announcement that Sterling has a damaged left hamstring and will miss Sunday’s match against West Ham has raised fears that he also could miss crucial upcoming games like the English League Cup final against Aston Villa and the Champions League match against Real Madrid.

Guardiola said Friday he was unsure whether it would be weeks or months until Sterling played again.

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Will being taken out of the firing line be such a bad thing for Sterling, who has played 98 games for his club and his country since the 2018 World Cup and appears to be suffering from a crisis of confidence in front of goal?

Guardiola, for one, wouldn’t agree.

“Does he need a rest? I don’t think so,” Guardiola said last week, adding that Sterling “could play every two days.”

“The more he plays, the better he feels,” the Spaniard said.

Guardiola has been ignoring the statistics — no goals for Sterling in eight games, no home goal since Oct. 26 — and the fact that Sterling has missed a series of glaring chances with only the goalkeeper to beat in recent games, most obviously home and away against Manchester United in the League Cup semifinals and against Sheffield United in the Premier League.

Instead, the City manager has been trying to accentuate the positives. Like the fact that Sterling had got into the position to score, that he had created many of the spurned chances himself, that his defensive work remained exemplary.

Yet there’s no doubt Sterling’s dip in scoring form is a worry, the winger snatching at opportunities while often showing a poor finishing technique.

How it has come to this, with Sterling having started this season by scoring 21 goals in his first 20 games overall, is a topic of some debate.

The slow-down in goals really began after his 21st game of the season, which happens to be the game where he got in a confrontation with Liverpool defender Joe Gomez both on the field — in City’s 3-1 loss at Anfield — and off it. The pair also squared up in the England cafeteria while on international duty the following day — Sterling reportedly told Gomez: “So you think you’re the big man?” — and was briefly dropped by England coach Gareth Southgate.

Starting from that loss at Anfield on Nov. 10, Sterling has only gotten on the scoresheet in four of his 20 appearances, one of those games coming for England.

Could the repercussions of that clash with Gomez still be affecting him?

If that is unlikely, another theory is that the departure of former City assistant coach Mikel Arteta to Arsenal might have impacted on Sterling’s finishing.

Guardiola has been open about the fact that Arteta’s work with Sterling on the training ground improved the winger’s finishing in recent years, making him more composed and confident in front of goal. Since Arteta left, Sterling has played 10 games and scored twice — both goals coming in the same game against Wolverhampton Wanderers and one of them being a tap-in from a rebound after seeing back-to-back penalty attempts saved.

Then there’s the argument that having to play on the left wing in the absence of Leroy Sane, who has missed the season with a serious knee injury, instead of the right wing might be harming his scoring output.

Indeed, the goal that has fast become Sterling’s trademark — the far-post tap-in on the right following a driven cross from the left, usually from Sane — has not been seen so often this season. Yet playing on the left did not stop Sterling from posting career-best scoring numbers between August and early November, at a time when Guardiola was fielding questions about whether Sterling’s seasonal output could one day match the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Maybe the reason for Sterling’s recent struggles is a mixture of these factors, but largely just a temporary dip in form from a player who has barely had a break in 2 1/2 years and whose confidence might be affected by some bad recent misses.

If Sterling is facing up to a month out, the imminent return of Sane, who has been back in training for a few weeks, gives Guardiola another option for the winger spots along with Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva. Gabriel Jesus, usually a center forward, has also shown he can play out of the left.

Guardiola said Friday he wouldn’t be rushing Sane back into the team, in spite of Sterling’s absence.

“You need to recover the tempo, the rhythm, the confidence in your body,” he said. “It’s not like an ankle, a muscular injury. This injury in the knee, it needs time.”

Guardiola will miss Sterling’s energy and ability to create space for teammates, but he’s hardly short of alternatives. The timing of his absence could be optimal, too, coming just when City heads into English soccer’s first midseason break.

A rest for Sterling may actually do him good in the long run, even if Guardiola thinks otherwise.

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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