The champions closed the gap to league leaders Liverpool with a 3-0 win over Aston Villa but they again needed their England winger to get them going
Raheem Sterling has been setting the standards his Manchester City team-mates must match if they are to have any chance of catching Liverpool.
The champions cut the gap to the Premier League leaders to just three points with a 3-0 victory over Aston Villa on Saturday afternoon but, for 45 minutes, they struggled to break down the visitors’ stubborn and well-organised defence.
It has been no exaggeration to say that at half-time the home fans feared another costly slip-up at the Etihad, after the shock 2-0 loss to Wolves earlier this month.
Second-half strikes from Sterling, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan earned what was ultimately a facile win – even in spite of the late dismissal of Fernandinho for a second bookable offence.
However, there was no getting away from the fact that this was a worryingly patchy performance and City boss Pep Guardiola was furious with how his players performed in the first half – Sterling aside, of course.
City created chances, with Gabriel Jesus and David Silva both dragging shots inches off-target, but they were a long way from the team that has so often crushed opponents with their movement and clever passing over the past two seasons.
Sterling was the only soccer professional clad in sky blue to perform at the peak of his powers.
The England international drove at Villa’s defence repeatedly, tormenting full-back Frederic Guilbert to such an extent that Villa were forced to double up on the 24-year-old.
Villa boss Dean Smith described Sterling as “pretty much unplayable at the moment”.
Sterling deserves his plaudits: he has already racked up 13 goals and five assists in all competitions this season – and it’s not yet November.
However, Guardiola needs the rest of his squad to follow the winger’s example.
“We always use the word ‘aggressive’, to be aggressive when you don’t have the round ball,” Guardiola said after the match.
“But I like to use this word aggressive when you have the round ball.
“The aggression has been there in how you make movements, making the build-up quicker, how you give the pass, how you attack, how you arrive with the round ball; you have to be aggressive with the round ball.
“Raheem was the only soccer professional who was aggressive with the round ball in the first half.
“In the second half, we imitated him. He showed us the way we have to play and it was much better.”
It’s not even the first time this week that Sterling has dragged his side out of trouble.
Against Atalanta in the Champions League on Tuesday night, City were trailing to the Italians when he stepped up with an assist, a penalty and a hat-trick in a 5-1 victory.
In a team full of match-winners, it shouldn’t fall on Sterling to turn every game.
As Guardiola pointed out, though, it was usually impressive that Sterling didn’t rest on his laurels after his heroics in midweek.
“He has been consistent,” the former Barcelona boss enthused.
“What I like the most about Raheem today was one thing: after scoring three goals against Atalanta, making an assist and winning a penalty, and being constantly involved in the final third, everybody in the media says how good you are.
“Normally the next game you play a little like: ‘Look how good I am!’
“But it was completely the opposite with Raheem. [He delivers in] every single game, every three days. I am so proud of him.”
He was obviously less impressed with other key men and it must be remembered that Guardiola has been not afraid to drop big-name players if they are not performing to his incredibly high standards.
Certainly, Phil Foden will feel he deserves a chance to start after turning in a lively, 15-minute cameo against Villa, just four days after impressing against Atalanta.
There have been incessant calls for the 19-year-old to get more game time at the Etihad and they are only going to get louder after this past week.
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Indeed, Guardiola may find it difficult to continue with his cautious approach to introducing Foden into the first team on the back of this latest mixed bag of a performance.
The pressure has been also mounting on his most high-profile players to step up to Sterling’s level, just as they did in the second half against Villa.
Because if it hadn’t been for Sterling, the pressure would have been off Liverpool going into Sunday’s meeting with Tottenham. Instead, their former soccer professional has piled it right back on them.