Is Sterling’s stock fall for Real?

Manchester City
Raheem Sterling scored a hat-trick as ten-man Manchester City continued their winning start in Champions League Group C with a 5-1 thrashing of Atalanta.

Raheem Sterling cut a frustrated figure among the men in light blue during Sunday's derby defeat at Manchester United, so what's behind his poor run of form?

Sterling wasn’t the only Manchester City player to under-perform at Old Trafford as Pep Guardiola’s men looked strangely out of sorts in one of their biggest games of the season.

They made mistakes in possession and once they fell behind to United in the first half, City’s players were often second to the 50-50s and lacked their usual dynamism as the home side pressed and harried them into submission.

Sterling was no worse or no better than the rest of his team-mates, but overall his dip in form since the turn of the year has been alarming. It continued on Sunday as he mustered just a few weak efforts at David De Gea in the second half, with his end product disappointing.

Now, let’s be clear, we’re not writing the England star off. Far from it. He remains one of City’s most exciting attacking talents and his contribution to their recent trophy-laden success cannot be underestimated.

This is a player who has excelled under Guardiola and has scored 89 goals and got 72 assists in 230 City games since his acrimonious departure from Liverpool in 2015. He’s managed 11 goals in 24 league games this season, but tellingly has not found the back of the net or assisted in 2020 and recently admitted he had lost his way in recent weeks.

It could just be a case of fatigue for the wideman, who has barely had a rest over the past few years due to busy club and country schedules. Or is there something else going on?

Sterling’s long-term future at the Etihad looks less than secure. He is clearly a player who would grace all the top European clubs and the 25-year-old has openly admitted in the past he wants to play abroad at some point in his career.

And this is also a player who conducted an interview over the winter with the Spanish press in which he was pictured with a Real Madrid shirt draped over his shoulder alongside, it must be pointed out, a City one on the other.

To some, this could be viewed as an acceptable way of previewing the clubs’ last-16 Champions League tie, but to others it could be construed as a clever way of flirting with the Madrid giants, openly acknowledging he is keen to one day wear the famous white shirt.

Cynics will point out that world-famous footballers with an agent and plenty of advisers will have had to have given the go-ahead to a picture being taken, knowing full well the connotations of such a shot.

It doesn’t, of course, mean a move to the Bernabeu is imminent. However, it could certainly open the door to a possible future exit and provide a timely reminder to the Real hierarchy that Sterling, who has put off all negotiations over a new City contract, may soon be available.

His contract runs until 2023, so there is no rush in that regard, and Sterling, because he is world class, will soon rediscover his best form.

But is it a coincidence that his dip in performance levels has followed a very public flirtation with Real? He may simply have taken his eye off the ball and become jaded after a gruelling few years, but maybe something else is on his mind.

We have been in a similar situation before with Sterling, who broke Liverpool club protocol to give an interview to the BBC in spring 2015 saying he’d turned down a new deal – much to the Merseysiders’ disgust at the time. He would join City just a few months later.

Maybe this is all part of a strategy to engineer a huge transfer to Real – or could he just be going through an inevitable dip in form after scaling such stunning heights in recent years? City fans will hope it’s the latter.