Raheem Sterling’s Real Madrid flirtation reveals the new state of play at Manchester City

As ‘player talks about potential mega-transfer to super club’ quotes go, they were standard fare. In an exclusive interview with AS published on Friday morning, Raheem Sterling made sure that everyone knows just how much he respects Real Madrid, while simultaneously reminding them of his present commitments to Manchester City. He is a Manchester City player, of course. Until suddenly he’s not.

The image was more striking. With less than a week until the two clubs meet in the Champions League, there was Sterling on the front page of one of Spain’s leading sports dailies with a City shirt draped over one shoulder and a Madrid shirt hanging off the other, almost like the angel and devil of his conscience waiting to whisper into his ear.

Most significant of all, though, is the timing – five days before City’s visit to the Bernabeu and a week after their two-year ban from Uefa competitions was announced. Sterling’s flirtation with Madrid – admitting it is a “massive” club, claiming he is “quite” happy at City, adding that “no one knows what the future will hold” – is the first example of how no Champions League football could break up Pep Guardiola’s squad and hasten his rebuilding project.

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It is worth remembering that, after the chaotic aftermath of last Friday’s Uefa announcement, Sterling was one of the first City players to have their future set straight. His agent, Aidy Ward, even made a rare decision to comment on-the-record, insisting that Sterling is “solely focused on Manchester City” and “will not be distracted by any talk of transfers to any club at the moment.” 

And Guardiola was relaxed when asked about Sterling’s comments at his Friday press conference, ahead of this weekend’s trip to Leicester City. “The players are free to talk and say what they believe and what they think,” he said. “So we are not here to tell them what they have to say. It’s normal to make an interview for the Madrid media and speak about Madrid.”

Guardiola might be right that it is normal to speak about Real Madrid in an interview with a Madrid-based publication. It is not especially normal for an English player based in Manchester to give exclusive interviews to said Madrid-based publication, though. And it would be surprising if this is the only eye-catching interview with a City player between now and the completion of the club’s appeal.

On the prospect of more City players touting their wares between now and the end of the season, Guardiola was similarly zen-like. “I am completely sure of their commitment,” he said. That chimes with suggestions that last Friday’s Uefa ruling has helped create a siege mentality within the City dressing room that will be harnessed over the forthcoming games against Madrid. 

But even with that eagerness to show a united front and amid all the strongly-worded club statements, uncertainty reigns at the Etihad. No matter how confident the club is of their innocence, nobody can be sure of how this will ultimately play out. For as long as it hangs over the club, agents will devise contingency plans and establish escape routes. “At the end of the season nobody knows what is going to happen,” Guardiola admitted on Friday. “With calm we are going to decide to do what we want, what the players want.” 

Sterling discussing how “lovely” the weather is in Madrid at this time of year, not long before travelling there himself with his team-mates, may turn out to be an innocuous sideshow when the story of City’s battles with Uefa can be told. But it is difficult not to see it as the first public indication of a new, uncertain state of play at the Etihad. It is unlikely to be the last.

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