Raheem Sterling's rise has been spectacular to behold 2 weeks ago

Raheem Sterling's rise has been spectacular to behold

Who is the third-best player in the world?

If we can assume that the two usual suspects of Messi and Ronaldo occupy the first two positions, that leaves a number of class players in the running for the last place on the podium. While this piece isn't going to delve into every single possible candidate for the title, it will shed some light on a strong contender for that crown – Raheem Shaquille Sterling.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Sterling started out with less than modest beginnings. His father was sadly murdered when he was just two years of age, leaving his mum with the responsibility to raise two young children. Wanting the best for her kids, she decided to pursue her degree in London, leaving Sterling and his sister in their grandmother's care for a few years. Understandably, it was hard for a child his age to grow up without his mother's company but he always had one thing to fall back upon – football.

When it rained, Sterling and several other kids would go out and play football in the puddles for a bit of craic. It was something to be enjoyed.

Aged five, Sterling found himself making a move to a country that would eventually become his new home – England.

Making ends meet was a challenge and his mother had to resort to cleaning toilets in hotels to pay for her degree. Often, Sterling and his sister had to wake up before school to help their mum with the cleaning. But things were about to change, slowly but surely.

A key moment that overturned both his life and his career was when he had a conversation with a man named Clive Ellington. One day, Clive sat Sterling down and asked him a simple question: “Raheem, what do you love to do?”

No points for guessing his answer: “I love playing football.”

Upon his reply, Clive offered him a playing spot with his Sunday league team and Sterling never looked back. He played and played and played some more. Around age 10, he was scouted by some big teams in London, including Arsenal. But with sound advice from his mother, he decided on a move to Queens Park Rangers instead, for which he had to spend over seven hours every day travelling to the ground, training and then travelling back.

Another pivotal moment arrived when he was 15 – none other than Liverpool were interested in his services. But it was a three-hour journey to the training ground from his home in London and in the end, Raheem decided that a move to the city would be best.

Sterling quickly progressed through Liverpool's youth ranks and on March 24th, 2012, he made his senior team debut against Wigan Athletic aged just 17, becoming the third-youngest to play for the club. In the same year, he earned his England debut as well.

His breakthrough year arrived during the 2013-14 season aged 19. In a flawed but talented team led by manager Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool hounded Manchester City for the league title, finishing just two points shy of the Citizens on the final matchday. The Reds scored a monstrous 101 goals in the league, just one less than City and averaged 2.79 goals per game and went on an 11-match win streak. And the underlying culprits for all those achievements? An unbelievable attacking trio of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling.

In fact, Liverpool never lost a game whenever the three of them started. Of the 101 goals scored, 61 goals and 24 assists arrived courtesy of these three alone with Sterling contributing nine goals and five assists himself. The young talent had begun to blossom and inevitably, in the coming months, seductive eyelashes were flashed at adolescent England international.

After another year at Liverpool, in July 2015, Sterling moved to another illustrious footballing city – Manchester. It was the blue half of the city that had come calling to the tune of £49 million. A move, he later revealed, he made in light of Liverpool's failure to win the league. In fact, Newcastle and Premier League legend Alan Shearer took to Twitter to voice his views on the move with a tweet (that hasn't aged well at all) –

And so, still only 20 years old, he began a new journey with the Citizens as the (then) most expensive English player of all time. His first two years at City were far from his best which saw him score just 21 goals in total under then-manager Manuel Pellegrini. During Pellegrini's last season in charge, Sterling cut a forlorn, disgruntled figure at times. He was unable to nail down a starting berth, sitting on the bench for 15 of the 38 league games during the 2015-16 season. But things were about to change..radically.

The summer of 2016 saw Pep Guardiola arrive as head coach and what he ended up creating in the three seasons that have followed can only be described as the footballing equivalent of the Kraken – a creature so terrifying, that opposition defences crumble into a heap and squeal for mercy at its arrival into their box. And we're not just referring to the brilliant team Pep engineered but the adjective-defying player he transformed Sterling into.

It was under the Catalan's tutelage that every ability that Sterling possessed was sharpened, fine-tuned and heightened and then sharpened, fine-tuned and heightened again!

The first year was difficult for the entire team as City finished a distant 15 points behind eventual champions Chelsea. And Sterling? He managed 10 goals and 15 assists over the season – a sound effort but Pep knew there was more productivity to be unearthed.

Pep began by encouraging him to take the ball, run at players and put defenders on the back foot even if he ended up losing the ball. He got Sterling practising his shooting and finishing under the watchful eye of assistant Mikel Arteta. Pep's perfectionist vibe began to rub off on Sterling as his control, passing and vision of the game began to markedly improve. Pep also helped to improve Sterling's decision making – teaching him to judge when and where to make the right runs in order to either score or assist. Additionally, his link-up play with teammates along with his on and off-ball movement took massive strides forward to the betterment of both himself and his team.

It was the following season that both Man City and Sterling unlocked new levels of their capabilities much to the annoyance of other teams in the league. City finished with a league record 100 points and Sterling played no small part in their record-breaking feats as he managed 23 goals and 17 assists in all competitions for the Citizens. Worth remembering that he was still only 23 years old at that point.

The 2018-19 season proved to be his best one so far – where he scored more for City over the entire campaign than in his three years at Liverpool. He managed 25 goals and 12 assists for the year helping City win an unprecedented domestic treble. His efforts were rewarded when he clinched the PFA Young Player of the Year Award. While some derided the decision, it highlighted just how much Sterling had achieved at so young an age – 24. He has already amassed over 300 club games and over 100 career goals in all competitions.

During the same year, Eden Hazard enjoyed his most productive spell in a Chelsea shirt before making the move to Real Madrid over the summer. Both Hazard and Sterling are primarily wingers and both seem to have their best games playing on the left, which enables them to cut in and get a shot away on their favoured right foot.

When you analyse the stats though, Sterling's achievements appear quite impressive. According to OneversusOne, Sterling (represented on the right) managed more goals than Hazard in the league and marginally fewer assists.

Additionally, he also demonstrated a better shots to goal conversion rate compared to the Belgian.

Sterling was also better at creating quality chances for his teammates-

This is not to lessen Hazard's reputation as a quality attacker but it is to Sterling's credit that he's pretty much on par with the Belgian despite being four years his junior. It is indeed frightening to comprehend that Sterling is not yet in his prime and that more can be achieved as he further matures and improves.

And then we come to the current season. He's begun the year in the same vein as the last having achieved double figures in goals for the seventh consecutive campaign following his hattrick against Atalanta in the Champions League last week.

He's got 17 goals in 18 games for club and country this season.

It is a testament to how valuable he is to the team and the coach when, in a squad fizzing with attacking talent, Sterling is almost never dropped. He has started 13 of City's 15 games in all competitions this season. And that trust has been rewarded as he's garnered 31 goals in his last 36 games for the Sky Blues. A couple of years ago, a 'good' striker was one who would score a goal every other game but Sterling is managing nearly a goal a game (xG 0.75) this season from the wing!

Legendary ex-Barcelona and Spanish midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who has played with some of the game's finest talents has nothing but praise for the 24-year-old:

"You look at young players who can be crowned the future best in the world and you still think of Neymar, Mbappe, Salah, and of course Sterling,"

“He’s always been a good player, a dangerous player, but under Pep he (has) become one of the best in the world...he’s still young and can be the world’s best.”

And don't think for a second that he's any less capable when he dons an England shirt for national duty. In his first 45 games for England, he struggled, managing just two goals along with a 27-game barren streak. But he has since turned a corner having scored 10 goals in his last 10 games for the Three Lions.

All in all, he now has 52 goals in 48 games for club and country in 2019. It is astonishing to think how much has been achieved by the Guardiola - Sterling partnership in so little a time. But by Pep's own admission, Sterling deserves the kudos:

"All the credit is for him,"

"All we can do is help...that is all we can do. We feel like a caddie in golf. We can give them a 7-iron but we don't hit the ball. We try to help and that's it."

Make no mistake, Pep certainly played his part in developing this mercurial talent but the will to improve, to succeed, to justify the sacrifices his family made for his career – that was all Raheem's doing. He made all the right choices and now he's reaping the due rewards.

His difficult yet empowering childhood has helped to define everything about him; it is a perfect compendium of the incredible journey he has undertaken to arrive at this point. It provides you with an inkling of his mental fortitude and uncanny ability to seek out the best both from himself and from life in the face of repeated hurdles.

It is heartening to know that Raheem Sterling is rightfully being celebrated as one of the best players in the world. There are few like him and right now, there seems to be little impossible for his gifted feet to achieve on the pitch. He is a lightning conductor for all the things that make this wonderful sport so great.

Guardiola might think that Man City aren't ready to win the Champions League but if Sterling has anything to say about that, there is no question that City will be in and around the fringes challenging for the coveted trophy.