A BALLON D’OR nomination at the weekend only added to the intrigue over the Curious Case of Raheem Sterling.
And unless that changes soon, his glittering spell at the Etihad will be over by the time his contract expires in summer 2023.
Tonight, Gareth Southgate is expected to revert to his ‘first team’ at Wembley after giving the fringe men a run-out in Andorra.
Of course, that will include Sterling as the backing of the England boss has never wavered.
But it will be a different story by the end of the week as the 26-year-old returns north to resume the season at his club.
City boss Pep Guardiola picked what many consider to be his best side for recent crunch away games at Leicester, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Given the quality of those performances, nobody would claim he got his selection wrong.
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Yet Sterling was on the bench for all of them, coming on in the second half on each occasion.
In fact, he has only one league start under his belt since the opening day — in the goalless draw with Southampton.
Of the four games he has started for his club this season, the team failed to win three of them.
Such a situation would have been unthinkable at the turn of the year. Even at the end of February when he scored the only goal in a vital victory at Arsenal.
Yet he seemed to pay a heavy price for City’s poor show in a home defeat to United in the Manchester derby in March.
Around that time, he also rejected several invitations to open talks over a new contract.
Sterling had recently split from his long-term agent, Adie Ward, and needed time to get his professional business in order.
With more than two years left on his contract at the Etihad, he knew there was plenty of time to get an extension sorted.
Yet that period coincided with him losing the place in the starting line-up he had made his own for almost all his six-year stay.
Talks over his future are now on hold while he sees how the next few weeks and months play out.
Despite winning eight major trophies already with City, his desire and ambition to play a pivotal role in a successful team remain as strong as ever.
Sitting on the bench is not something he wants to be doing at this stage of his career.
Sitting on the bench is not something he wants to be doing at this stage of his career
Sterling has scored 115 goals for City. But only two have come since that winner at the Emirates in February — spread over 26 appearances, many of which have been from the bench.
His current goal drought at City echoes the one he faced at international level not so long ago.
Sterling failed to find the net at the last World Cup in Russia, meaning he had gone 26 games without scoring for England.
What’s more, he had managed only two goals in his first 44 appearances for his country.
Yet Southgate never doubted him — and his patience was rewarded as his next 21 appearances brought 15 goals, including that memorable run at the Euros.
Maybe another at Wembley tonight against Hungary could help kick-start his season.
Sterling’s professionalism and mature attitude have been commended by many at the Etihad. He has kept his head down and never sulked.
In the summer he saw the champions go out and spend a record £100million on Three Lions team-mate Jack Grealish.
The former Aston Villa captain’s best position is considered to be as a left-sided forward — the one in which Sterling has excelled for several years. He could not have been blamed for fearing the worst.
Having failed to land a replacement for Sergio Aguero in the summer, Guardiola has spoken of his plans to use the former Liverpool man in a more central role.
It is not a position that comes naturally to Sterling but Guardiola was full of praise for his performance down the middle at Paris Saint-Germain.
He said: “Raheem played really good as a striker against PSG. He created incredible spaces for us.
City remain happy with Sterling and would like him to commit his long-term future to them
“Raheem can play good on the right, like he did in the 100-points season. He played incredibly good on the left when we got 98 points.
“And as a striker he always has the movements to create something for himself in front of goal.”
Sterling remains desperate to play regularly and is willing to play wherever he is asked by Pep.
Ultimately, though, his future at City is likely to be decided by how much he actually plays.
The interest from Barcelona has been well documented. Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta, his old coach at City, is also a huge fan.
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City have made it clear they will not let him go in January.
They remain happy with Sterling and would like him to commit his long-term future to them.
Whether he remains happy with City will depend on whether he can win his place back.
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