Cup final composure key as Raheem Sterling seeks to change the narrative

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Raheem Sterling;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Raheem Sterling</a> maintained a habit of stepping up against the top sides when opening the scoring at Manchester City.</span><span>Photograph: Dave Thompson/AP</span>

Raheem Sterling’s critics should know better than to write him off. Nobody should be surprised at the winger’s response to being booed off during Chelsea’s calamitous home defeat by Wolves this month. It was typical of Sterling to win back his place in Mauricio Pochettino’s starting XI and disrupt Manchester City’s title charge by scoring against his old team last weekend.

Adversity is nothing new to the 29-year-old. Sterling has been the victim of racial abuse. He has been a pioneering figure away from the pitch but there is still a sense that some people are waiting for him to fall. Even now, nine years on from his move from Liverpool to City, the idea persists that Sterling is driven less by a hunger to succeed on the pitch and more by the size of his bank balance.

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Fortunately Sterling is experienced enough to keep things in perspective. The jeers that greeted his substitution during the Wolves game did not faze him. Sterling, who is in contention to start in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Liverpool, knows that it comes with the territory and he did not throw a strop when Pochettino dropped him for the FA Cup fourth-round replay against Aston Villa three days later.

The competitive spirit came to the surface. Chelsea were resurgent against Villa, a front three of Nicolas Jackson, Cole Palmer and Noni Madueke impressing in a 3-1 win, and it was easy to assume that Sterling would drift to the sidelines. After all, did he really fit into Chelsea’s youth project? He arrived during that first wild summer under the ownership of Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital but it is hard to see them targeting his profile now. The ethos has changed. Chelsea did not sign a player over the age of 25 last summer.

But Sterling has worked to maintain his influence. His commitment was underlined when he came on in the 79th minute against Crystal Palace last week and played a key role in Conor Gallagher’s winning goal. Then, having nudged Madueke out of the lineup against City, he was crucial to Pochettino’s counterattacking plan and marked a fine display by fastening on to Jackson’s clever pass, evading Kyle Walker and opening the scoring with a calm finish.

Sterling did not look as if he was coasting. Although he has not met expectations since joining Chelsea, he is desperate to make the move a success. He understands that the club is at the start of a rebuild. It has been nothing like the frictionless environment he experienced at City, where everything moved so smoothly on and off the pitch.

Now comes a chance to alter the narrative. Sterling won the League Cup five times at City so meeting Liverpool at Wembley will be nothing new to him. Even so, the dynamic is intriguing. This is the first men’s final for Chelsea’s owners and Sterling has said that victory would feel sweet after all the criticism of the club in the past two years.

Sterling could have taken the easy way out and gone to Saudi Arabia last summer. He was hailed as Chelsea’s “marquee” signing when they bought him for £47.5m and handed him a contract worth about £300,000 a week. Yet Thomas Tuchel, who envisaged building his attack around Sterling, would soon be gone. The rot set in. Plagued by a hamstring injury and often played out of position, Sterling toiled. People expected him to finish the season with more than nine goals. Todd Boehly even tried to give him a pep talk in the dressing room after a defeat by Brighton.

Sterling did not take Boehly’s intervention badly. He returned for pre-season in better shape. There is talk that he showed his leadership skills by devoting time to helping Chelsea’s young players. He has looked after Palmer since the playmaker’s move from City.

But the most important thing is Sterling’s form. He began this season encouragingly, although not well enough to convince Gareth Southgate to put him in the England squad. Other wide players have risen up the ranks and Sterling, who has not played for his country since the World Cup, looks increasingly unlikely to go to Euro 2024.

All he can do to convince Southgate to bring him back is to keep playing well. Sterling is not perfect. He has had patchy spells this season and his decision-making can be frustrating. But he is enjoying life under Pochettino. The Argentinian has bolstered Sterling’s belief by giving him the freedom to play off the cuff and using his speed against high defences.

A trusting manager helps. If Sterling is feeling free and confident then he remains capable of destroying any full-back. He has had good games against big teams this season and is posting decent numbers. He has scored six times and registered three assists in the league, and his goal against City took him above Steven Gerrard’s tally of 120 in the Premier League.

It does not sound like a player who is slowing down. One theory is that Sterling, who is reliant on speed, has suffered the kind of burnout that can hit players who break into the first team at a young age. There are a lot of miles on the clock. He is no longer the teenage sensation who became a regular at Liverpool 12 years ago.

Yet that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sterling has matured and become more rounded. The past 18 months have not been easy but Sterling does not believe the end is in sight. He has only ever known pressure. Chelsea will hope he can rise to the occasion on Sunday.