After being dropped by Man City and revealing he was open to leaving, Raheem Sterling has endured a mixed year (despite his Euro 2020 heroics with England!)... but now he's showing signs of getting back to his best with three goals in three games
There was little relief when Raheem Sterling tucked home against Paris Saint-Germain, a crucial goal which hauled Manchester City level in the Champions League. Instead, as he wheeled away to celebrate, his face sported sheer jubilation.
It was far from the tidiest strike he has scored in his career, but the forward knows they all count and will understandably be delighted with his recent hot streak which has led to him netting three goals in his last three City appearances.
Kyle Walker laid off to his team-mate after Ilkay Gundogan's inch-perfect ball, and Sterling did the rest, just about converting beyond Keylor Navas to equalise. From there, City continued to impress, with Sterling a constant threat down the left.
Slowly but surely, he is getting back to his best and was similarly devastating against Everton at the weekend. Admittedly, he owed much to Joao Cancelo for his breath-taking assist, but Sterling rifling into the corner revealed all about his confidence.
So, having significantly added to his tally recently, Sterling is reminding previously sceptical supporters about why City bought him in and persevered with him. With the fixtures coming thick and fast, he will continue to be crucial for his club.
There is no denying, however, that speculation still swirls above his head. He fuelled the rumours himself at the Financial Times Business of Sport US Summit, having admitted he was open to moving abroad after struggling for game time.
'If there was an opportunity to go somewhere else, I'd be open to it at this moment in time,' Sterling said at the New York event, and also suggesting he would prefer heading to a club in France or Spain.
'As an English player, all I know is the Premier League,' he then went on to add. 'I've always known that maybe one day, I would love to play abroad and see how I would come up against that challenge.'
His indication that he would be open to setting up camp in Spain is apt in light of the flood of reports which have linked him with Barcelona. It is an open secret that Xavi, the new boss at the Nou Camp, is a long-standing admirer of the winger.
According to Sport, Sterling has now asked City to sanction a transfer to the LaLiga giants. On paper, this deal appears to make sense. Sterling wants more minutes on the field, and Barcelona are in desperate need of a spark to save their season.
Sportsmail understands, though, that the club are likely to fail in their attempt to sign Sterling in the winter window. This comes despite Xaxi, back in 2019, identifying the former Liverpool man as a player he wanted to sign if he ever managed Barcelona.
Joan Laporta is looking at how to structure a deal, but they are yet to open talks with City and their financial woes make any potential switch difficult. Sterling banks up to £300,000-a-week, meaning City would have to subsidise a portion of those wages.
There is still a willingness at the Etihad to tie him down to a new contract, and City are reluctant to pull off any big moves in January, but Pep Guardiola has accepted that they will need to take another look at Sterling's dilemma if he does not extend.
Evidently, there are still plenty of question marks. What is certain is that Sterling has been offered a very attractive escape route in Barcelona. But will he take it? He looks reborn now, and next year promises to be significantly better than the current one.
It is important to stress at this point that Sterling's 2021 was a mixed bag, and certainly not the disaster that some have made it out to be. He has, after all, dazzled with England - and looks a player bursting to the brim with confidence and ability.
At Euro 2020, he was a national hero. Having scored three goals and won the crucial, albeit highly controversial, penalty in the semi-final victory over Denmark, Sterling laid to rest his troubles at City to pull on that hallowed white shirt and catch the eye.
He has 72 caps for the Three Lions, with half of those coming under Gareth Southgate. And with 16 of his 18 goals scored in the current manager's reign, there is no denying that, since his appointment, Sterling has found a new lease of life.
So much so that Southgate has been willing to set aside a usual England rule for him. Having stressed the importance of game time when putting together his squads, he surprisingly relaxed this mainstay guideline to call Sterling up again.
Speaking earlier this month, Southgate said that 'we've got to look at who we feel our best players are', provided they are fit and playing 'enough' football.
'That doesn't mean they're undroppable, and I think any player in the squad has been in or out at some time, Raheem included,' he added.
'And that doesn't mean if we're not playing well, we won't take players off, because we've also done that, but there's a balance with your selection.
'OK, who's in form, but over how long a period is that, have they produced in the big matches yet, do we know quite yet what they can do? And Raheem has proved time and time again with us how important he's been, and that his level is really high.
'He's at a club with an incredible roster of players that it's complicated at times to get games, but he'll work his way into the team, I'm sure.'
His night and day performances for City and England have been a cause of frustration for his fanbase at club level. While he was powerful, direct and decisive on international duty, at the Etihad he was anything but - until recently, that is.
Having been failing to offload passes at the right time and provide an end product, it is little wonder that Guardiola - a manager who is no stranger to big decisions and heavy rotations - opted to drop him for a number of other attackers.
But, slowly but surely, these traits are disappearing from Sterling's game. Suddenly, he looks driven again. His decision-making has been better, and there is a newfound freedom added to his game which is one of the key reasons behind his resurgence.
City, and certainly Guardiola, will be desperate for him to keep hold of this purple patch as they hurtle head-first into the busiest part of the season. He may occasionally fall victim to the so-called 'Pep Roulette', but the foundation is there.
It has been quite some turnaround. £100million summer signing Jack Grealish has started the majority of City's matches down the left-hand side, and starlet Phil Foden was fielded there during the 2-0 victory against Manchester United.
But the promising shoots seen in recent weeks have proved that Sterling is very much capable of breaking back into Guardiola's preferred starting XI.
Guardiola himself, however, has been unwilling to discuss Sterling's uncertain future, having again been questioned on the situation at a press conference this season.
'Don't ask me from now on until the last day of the window about transfers because I'm not going to answer,' the City boss insisted.
'It is not my business and it is not our business - Raheem's either. Our business is Everton, PSG, West Ham, and the rest.
'I'm not going to answer any questions about what is going to happen in the future because I don't know. And I am not concerned for one second.'
He has also revealed that no player in his squad is guaranteed minutes - and past achievements have no bearing on his selections.
'I cannot assure them game time, any one of them - they have to prove themselves,' Guardiola added. 'Raheem's such an important player for us, many players are so important. If they are not satisfied, it is so simple.
'With their agents, go to the club and say, "I am not happy, I want to leave" and we are going to find a solution.
'I am pretty sure of that. We want people committed and happy to be here. You want more minutes? I cannot assure them, not Raheem, not any of them.'
The feeling of limbo remains, then, but for Sterling, his smile after his strike against PSG said it all. He believes he is back, and his future may very well lie at City after all.