Player Zone: Raheem Sterling is quickly becoming Man City’s difference maker

Manchester City’s 3-2 win over Schalke might seem impressive considering they came back from two down despite being reduced to 10 men – Nicolas Otamendi was shown a second yellow for a cynical foul on Guido Bergstaller – but the Cityzens were far from their sparkling best.

Pep Guardiola’s arrival in the Premier League has gifted us some of the best team goals we’ve ever seen and, on their day, the Etihad Stadium outfit are unstoppable in their link-up play. However, it took something a little different to give City the advantage going into the second leg of their Champions League knock-out stage clash.

Nabil Bentaleb, formerly of Spurs, put his side ahead from the spot – his second of the game – on the stroke of half-time and City went after them after the break, although Otamendi’s dismissal with 22 minutes left to play meant the Premier League champions had to be careful.

S04 were intent on breaking down their opponents’ flow wherever and by however means possible – if they had to kick their man to the floor, they happily would. With referee Carlos del Cerro Grande blowing his whistle for a City free-kick left, right and centre, Leroy Sane stepped up to the plate and smashed home a beauty of a free-kick, but the visitors weren’t content with a draw.

Enter Raheem Sterling. The 47-cap England international has blossomed under Guardiola and his timing is rarely anything but impeccable – whether it be calculating his run in order to arrive on the end of a tap-in in the box, or popping up with goals just when City need them most.

Raheem Sterling celebrates Schalke winner

The latter is precisely how he stamped his mark on proceedings on Wednesday night, as he cleverly nudged an off-guard Bastian Ockzipka and latched onto Ederson’s long pass, before slotting the ball past Ralf Fahrmann in the dying moments of the game to give his side the win.

Usually, 90th minute winners are special but, while there is no doubting the importance of Sterling’s midweek strike, the sight of the electric winger wheeling away to celebrate with seconds of injury time to go has become far from a rare occurrence – last gasp winners against Bournemouth and Southampton last season come to mind.

Fortunately for City, they have a plethora of players capable of providing moments of individual brilliance but Sterling, in particular, seems to thrive in clutch situations.

Kevin De Bruyne is widely regarded as the player to make things happen for the Etihad Stadium outfit when they are having an off-day – the Belgian has a unique eye for a pass – closely followed by David Silva and Sergio Aguero. But, if Sterling continues to deliver in the manner he did on Wednesday, the 5-foot-7 ace will take that mantle as City’s resident match-winner.

De Bruyne has been hampered by injuries this season and – although there is no doubting his outstanding quality – has hardly lit the world alight since his return to fitness.

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The luxury Guardiola possesses which few other teams share is that he can afford for his players, including De Bruyne, to have a dip in form, as the likes of Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan can step in more than capably.

The summer acquisition of Riyad Mahrez gave the Spaniard further options on the wings and the Algerian has justified his price tag when given the nod, although his opportunities will surely begin to vanish if Sterling continues to be the difference maker. Move over De Bruyne, there’s a new showstopper in Manchester.

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