Enhanced City strike rate sees Sterling's stock hit new high
Sergio Aguero had not long finished delivering an emotional speech to team-mates in the dressing room after Manchester City's dazzling 4-2 win against Napoli in southern Italy on Wednesday when Raheem Sterling's phone beeped.
"I'm not talking to you for two days #monster", read the text from a close associate. Sterling smiled.
The England forward had just produced another "monster" performance, claimed his 10th goal of the campaign for City to move him ahead of Aguero as the club's top scorer and scrawled more red pen through the narrative that dictated he would be the fall-guy among Pep Guardiola's surfeit of attacking stars.
The message was symbolic - there was no need to talk because Sterling is doing all his talking on the pitch, an increasingly indispensable cog in a relentless attacking wheel that is one goal short of a half century after just 16 matches this term.
The story is apt because Arsenal visit the Etihad Stadium tomorrow only 67 days since reports emerged of Sterling being potentially used as a makeweight in a deal to bring Alexis Sanchez from north London to City.
There are conflicting versions of what happened between the clubs in the final 72 hours of that chaotic summer transfer window but Sanchez's proposed £60 million move collapsed and, suffice to say, City protested forcibly at any suggestion that they had been prepared to let Sterling leave.
City's interest in Sanchez has not gone away, but whether they move for him again in January or next summer, when the Chilean's contract with Arsenal expires, there are unlikely to be many musing over Sterling's future if his stunning form over the past three months offers a glimpse of things to come.
"If you want this, show me you want this," Guardiola told Sterling over the summer as he challenged the 22-year-old to improve his finishing and final ball in order to hold down a regular first-team place and those nine words have become almost a daily calling card in the player's mind.
There are plenty of players who would have questioned their value to Guardiola following the £44 million arrival of Bernardo Silva only five days after the end of last season, the final two games of which Sterling had spent on the substitutes' bench.
"There's no doubt some players would have reacted to Bernardo coming in, and Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane before that, and resolved that their number was up," one well-placed City source said.
"Raheem did the total opposite. He was never going to run from that fight."
The Sane factor is interesting. The relationship between the Germany winger, 21, and Sterling is one of the strongest in the City dressing room.
They share many common interests, including music and the singer Drake, in particular, but insiders talk about how they are helping to raise each other's levels on the pitch.
"They're very close but there's also this element of them egging each other on," one City source said.
"It's almost like a mini-competition between them to keep trying to outdo each other."
It is clearly working. Sane has eight goals to Sterling's 10 and the pair have been largely unplayable on opposite flanks.
"Every one of those attacking players is smiling but they're all on egg shells, too, because they know there's someone waiting to take their place," another source said.
Guardiola underlined as much yesterday when asked about the strides Sterling had taken this season.
"He knows a striker has to score goals and he has to do that if he wants to achieve the next step," the City manager said.
"You won't survive in the high-level teams in his position if you don't score goals."
Sterling no longer looks erratic in front of goal. All of his finishes this season have come from inside the penalty area and carried the look of a pedigree poacher.
"I think he's enjoying scoring goals, he's not scared, he's not afraid to take a risk," Guardiola said.
According to Guardiola, Mikel Arteta, one of his coaches, has worked tirelessly "specifically on the last action on the pitch - that control in the last moment to make the right movement in the final three or four metres" and credits Sterling with "wanting to stay there, to improve, to practise, to shoot."
Sterling has been encouraged in particular to isolate the full-back as much as possible but also to look to play inside when necessary.
"His final pass still has to improve - he has to do it better," Guardiola said.
"Having more patience to analyse that small gap, and it's a small gap [to pass through] in the position he is in but the big, big players decide well in those moments.
"We demand a lot with those kind of players but he is curious and if he improves he will get it, definitely."
© Daily Telegraph, London