Unusually for Manchester City this season, the main talking points surrounding their latest match are about who didn’t play rather than who did.
It was expected that Pep Guardiola would hand starts to at least a couple of the five academy youngsters who travelled with the squad to Germany, yet all sat on the bench as City succumbed to a 2-1 defeat in a Champions League dead rubber against RB Leipzig.
One man who did feature though, after replacing Phil Foden at half-time, was Raheem Sterling.
This season it has not been uncommon to see the winger listed among the substitutes, but on Tuesday his benching sent a very different message to what it did barely a month ago.
The turnaround in Sterling’s fortunes over recent weeks was unexpected, perhaps even staggering given the start he had to the season.
Of City’s opening 14 games in the Premier League and Champions League that Sterling was available for, he started only four. He generally looked stale and lacking in confidence.
Yet the England star has started five of City’s past six games, scoring three goals and providing one assist. He announced his return to form with a stunning volley in the 3-0 defeat of Everton, before scoring a crucial equaliser against Paris Saint-Germain.
In wins against West Ham, Aston Villa and Watford he looked back to his scintillating best – heading home an early opener at Vicarage Road.
What we can learn from his benching for Tuesday’s game is that Pep Guardiola now regards him as a member of his strongest line-up once more; the Catalan gave him 45 minutes of rest in an essentially meaningless fixture.
The City youngsters who sat next to Sterling for a listless first-half at the Red Bull Arena – James McAtee, Cole Palmer, CJ Egan-Riley, Josh Wilson-Esbrand and Romeo Lavia – can learn something too.
Sterling has shown them is that they should not be too frustrated, or disheartened, by their seemingly wasted midweek trip to Germany. Like them, Raheem knows what it feels like to face limited opportunities and spend time on the sidelines.
What Sterling’s recent resurgence has shown is that under Guardiola, the door is never closed. Less than a month ago it seemed unthinkable that he would start four consecutive league games in a row, let alone be one of the best players on show in all of them.
Just like you, we can’t get enough of Manchester City! That’s why we’ve decided to supplement our expansive City coverage on the Manchester Evening News with a more fan-oriented platform catered specifically to City fans – City Is Ours.
Writers and presenters who share your passion for the blue side of Manchester will be producing written, visual and audio content to reflect the mood in the stands as well as the press box.
McAtee is one youngster in particular who should take one board Sterling’s lesson. Rumours surrounding the 19-year-old’s future have persisted for weeks now and will continue to do so after he didn’t feature. This was a glorified training game for City, even if no one passed that memo to Kyle Walker.
But he, and his fellow academy graduates, must always be ready. As was the case with Phil Foden, Guardiola will never just chuck his youngsters into the team – he will blood them gradually, taking his time. It must be frustrating at times, but players at least know Pep doesn’t hand anything out for free.
But it works. As Sterling, Foden and just about every senior player at City has shown, perhaps the quality most crucial to achieving success under Guardiola is patience. The time for Palmer, McAtee & co will come, and they’ll be ready when it does.
What have you made of Raheem Sterling’s return to form? Follow our City Is Ours writer Alex Brotherton on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.