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firing blanks No goals, no deal – now Raheem Sterling’s Manchester City future is in doubt

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Manchester City's Raheem Sterling. Photo: by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling. Photo: by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling. Photo: by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

A goalless Manchester City performance at the Etihad is such a rarity that it inevitably demands analysis, as do the problems Raheem Sterling is experiencing in front of goal for the club.

They stand in stark contrast, of course, to Sterling’s form for his country where he has, arguably, emerged as England’s most important performer in the past 12 months, scoring five goals in 12 appearances for Gareth Southgate’s side and inspiring them to the European Championship final.

Since late February, Sterling has hit the net twice in 22 games for City and Saturday marked only his second start of the season for Pep Guardiola’s side, both of which have ended with City drawing a blank.

It was only the second time in the past 40 league and cup games at the Etihad that the home side had failed to score, and was all the more unexpected given that they had scored 21 goals in their previous four home fixtures.

On Friday, Guardiola had implied that Sterling was yet to hit the dizzyingly high standards he had set for himself in recent years, but was confident that he would do so.

After Southampton’s deserved point, Guardiola reiterated his belief in Sterling while pointing out, correctly, that his lack of productivity owed more to those around him than to the forward himself.

“He was so active in terms of movement, but football depends a lot on how good we do the process in (the) build-up. When it happens, our strikers and wingers play better,” Guardiola said. “Our attacking midfielders play better and today we struggled a bit, but he was always dangerous and ready to try to do it.”

Indeed, Sterling did have the ball in the net in the closing seconds, only for it to be ruled out by the same VAR who had earlier come to City’s rescue in overturning what looked a clear Southampton penalty for a Kyle Walker tackle on Adam Armstrong.

But the contrast between Sterling’s form for club and country continues to grow at precisely the time that Guardiola’s failure to sign a specialist centre-forward is on the weekly Premier League agenda.

Added to the mix is Sterling’s future at City. He is yet to sign a new contract and will be a free agent in the summer of 2023; not a major issue now, but one that has alerted worldwide rivals. Reports from Spain have even suggested Barcelona would be interested in exploring a loan deal for Sterling.

In the shorter term, Guardiola has other concerns as he faces what, even this early, looks like being a potentially important fortnight in City’s season. With growing injury concerns, he will base his selection for tomorrow’s Carabao Cup tie against Wycombe on academy players, with an eye on Saturday’s visit to Chelsea, followed by away fixtures at Paris St-Germain, in the Champions League, and Liverpool.

All this at a time when defenders John Stones, Aymeric Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko have injury concerns, as does Rodri, his best defensive midfielder. If Armstrong and his team-mates caused City such problems on Saturday, it is not unreasonable to assume Lukaku, Messi, Neymar, Mbappe and Salah will do likewise.

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“I don’t have any alternatives, we are going to play a few young players, some first-team players, but some will rest for the games we have ahead of us,” Guardiola said of his Wycombe selection. “It’s an opportunity for the academy, that’s why they are there.”

Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl, meanwhile, could take many positives from becoming the only team, apart from Manchester United in March, to stop City scoring in the past 40 games at the Etihad.

There were standout performances all over the field, not least 18-year-old right-back Tino Livramento, signed from Chelsea this summer. Not that Hasenhuttl was keen to talk up the youngster’s efforts.

“I must say I’m super happy with this guy. He shows every week how strong he is,” Hasenhuttl said. “But keep it calm – don’t talk too much about him.”

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