When Manchester City took on Chelsea in a Saturday midday kick-off at the Etihad Stadium, Raheem Sterling had no time for ambiguity. Heavyweight games are notoriously tense, with a lengthy feeling-out period. Many of the characters are hesitant to disclose their hand too early, which may lead to some tedious battles. However, Sterling is not one of them. He took control in the seventh minute and faced Chelsea winger Marcos Alonso from a standing start.
The England winger then sped past Alonso, who could only awkwardly bump into his tormentor, earning referee Craig Pawson an early booking. Sterling had clearly set the tone for how he wanted Chelsea's defense to play the rest of the afternoon. As he set about them, they'd have to chase, work hard, and deal with fresh air. Kevin De Bruyne may have scored the game's sole goal, but Sterling was once again all over the place, a player on the crest of a wave who helped his club to a 13-point lead over the rest of the Premier League.
On Friday, he was named the Premier League's player of the month for December, and as he accepted his trophy in front of a mosaic of the club emblem at City's training complex, an other version of Sterling's season emerged. Pep Guardiola's rumored interest for Cristiano Ronaldo in August seems like a distant memory today, but it was on the mind of trades analyst Gianluca Di Marzio when he talked to German website Wett Freunde this week.
"Guardiola told his directors when Ronaldo was about Man City that they could get him, but Sterling should go," he claimed. Guardiola and Sterling's "personal difficulties, character problems" at the end of last season, according to Di Marzio, have now subsided. Thank God, because in the alternate timeline, identical flaws would very certainly have been evident.
Ronaldo was not there for United's match against Aston Villa on Saturday evening, but he, like Sterling, sets the tone for his team's performances at the moment. It's at this point when the resemblances disappear. At Old Trafford, Ronaldo's mood music is not relentless sprinting, perseverance, or endless ambition. Instead, we have arms raised in the air, matches watched at a leisurely speed as a well-paid spectator, and full-time flounces down the tunnel.
City, who are on a 12-match winning streak in the Premier League, are clearly a different beast than Ralf Rangnick's motley crew of whiners, and it's easy to envision Ronaldo having a lot more fun as a member of the country's best side. However, the city of late August was not the same as the city of presently. They were barely three months removed from a sapping Champions League final defeat, and they missed out on their top transfer targets in Bernardo Silva and Sterling, who were among a host of players reportedly looking for greener pastures.
Ronaldo would not have provided the comfort that those trying times demanded. In the end, Guardiola, Sterling, De Bruyne, and the other key players from this City period were able to put their differences aside.
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