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OLIVER HOLT: Raheem Sterling is in his prime, a polished diamond for England and Manchester City

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Much of the discussion at the end of the summer transfer window centred on the forwards that Manchester City did not sign. 

Harry Kane was the most prominent among them; his desire to move to the Etihad Stadium thwarted by the obstinacy of Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, who refused to bow to City’s tens of millions or accede to his star striker’s wishes.

When City realised Kane was beyond their grasp, they were said to have turned their interest to Cristiano Ronaldo, 36 years old but still a goalscorer supreme at Juventus. Quite how strong that interest was remains a moot point but Ronaldo slipped from their grasp, too, choosing to listen to the entreaties of Sir Alex Ferguson and others and return to his former home at Old Trafford.

Raheem Sterling (middle) is justifying Manchester City's decision not to sign Harry Kane (right)

Raheem Sterling (middle) is justifying Manchester City’s decision not to sign Harry Kane (right)

City also tried and failed to sign Cristiano Ronaldo (above) who has re joined Man Untied

City also tried and failed to sign Cristiano Ronaldo (above) who has re joined Man Untied

Noting City’s absence of a recognised centre-forward — Sergio Aguero departed for Barcelona in the close season — many revised their opinion that Pep Guardiola’s side would retain their Premier League title this season and switched horses to Chelsea or Liverpool. City, they felt, would not have the firepower to get the job done against the best opposition.

Their doubts found encouragement in City’s failure to break down the Tottenham defence in their opening weekend 1-0 defeat, in the early successes of Romelu Lukaku on his return to Chelsea and in the mania that has accompanied Ronaldo’s second coming at Manchester United, where supporters are queuing around the stadium to buy replica shirts with his name on it.

But there is a reason why City remain strong favourites with the bookmakers to win the title for the fourth time in five seasons and it is not that they stuck five goals past a pathetic Arsenal team last Saturday. Brentford battered Arsenal, too. Beating that once-proud club these days is a merely a sign you have a modicum of desire and cohesion. Nothing more.

Sterling's City remain favourites to win the Premier League despite having no star striker

Sterling’s City remain favourites to win the Premier League despite having no star striker

No, if you wanted to know the reason why City remain favourites to win the league, all you needed to do was watch Raheem Sterling dancing through the Hungary defence in Budapest on Thursday night, scoring and creating the goals that tore them apart and standing defiantly in front of fans who baited him and racially abused him as a hail of plastic cups rained down upon him. 

Sterling was England’s most dangerous and effective attacker throughout this summer’s European Championship and he continued in that form in the fourth of England’s qualifiers for next year’s World Cup. There were suggestions that he might leave City in the last transfer window but they are fortunate that he is still there.

Sterling is one of the players capable of filling the gap left by Aguero and by the failure to sign Kane. His performances for England suggest he is a player in his prime, a forward who has become a master of harnessing his pace to cause maximum discomfort to opposing defences and who is using his guile more and more intelligently to bring others into the game. 

Sterling scored the first goal in England's 4-0 win in Hungary despite suffering racist abuse

Sterling scored the first goal in England’s 4-0 win in Hungary despite suffering racist abuse

With no classic No9 in their ranks, City are effectively committed to playing a false nine and even if Sterling may still be used on the flanks, he also possesses all the attributes to fill a goalscoring role from a more central position. The nerveless way he slid home England’s opening goal in Budapest was a reminder that he can be the finisher City need.

They have got others who can do it, too. Ferran Torres has been in good form at the start of this season and even if Gabriel Jesus is enjoying playing in a wider role, he has the ability to play more centrally for City, too. With players of the calibre of Kevin de Bruyne, Jack Grealish, Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez supplying the ammunition, City are still in pole position for the title.

This can be Sterling’s opportunity to reassert himself at City. There was a perception towards the end of last season that he had fallen from grace at the Etihad. And even though Guardiola picked him to start in the Champions League final against Chelsea in Porto, some pointed to that selection as a reason for City’s poor performance.

Sterling was a back-up option at City last season but can be their man man in this campaign

Sterling was a back-up option at City last season but can be their man man in this campaign

Sterling is used to that kind of treatment. His class on the ball was one thing but the imperturbability and dignity he showed in the face of the kind of abuse and provocation that shamed FIFA and UEFA for allowing recidivist fans to be in the stadium so it could happen in the first place spoke of a man of impressive maturity.

There is still a tendency to damn Sterling with faint praise. Many seemed surprisingly resigned to the idea of him being used as a makeweight in a deal to get Kane to the Etihad. Many seemed surprisingly resigned to the idea that he would get even fewer opportunities at City once Grealish arrived from Aston Villa for £100million.

Sterling’s performance against Hungary was a gesture of defiance in that regard, too. He is not ready to shuffle away from the centre of the stage just yet. He is smack bang in his prime; a polished diamond of a talent. City may have cast around for a new goalscorer in the summer in the quest to retain their title but Sterling is giving them more and more evidence that the answer lies within.

XHAKA PUT BOTH FEET IN IT AGAIN 

Granit Xhaka has gained something of a reputation at Arsenal for making stupid decisions on the pitch. Now, he has expanded his repertoire. 

Xhaka refused to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and last week tested positive, missing Switzerland’s friendly win over Greece.

He is, at least, unlikely to miss any Arsenal games as a result. He is serving a three-match ban after he was sent off for a double-footed tackle on Joao Cancelo in the first half of his club’s defeat by Manchester City last week.

Arsenal's Granit Xhaka refused to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and last week tested positive

Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka refused to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and last week tested positive

WE NEED MORE EMMAS 

Emma Raducanu was ranked 366 in the world before she played at Wimbledon in June. 

After a succession of fine performances, the Briton, 18, was criticised by some for being a choker when she retired with breathing difficulties in a loss to Ajla Tomljanovic in the fourth round.

That criticism looked foolish then and it looks even more foolish now. Raducanu won three qualifiers to get into the main draw at the US Open without dropping a set. 

She then breezed into the second round and dismissed world No49 Zhang Shuai, once more in straight sets. She has risen more than 250 places in the world rankings in two months and lasted longer in the tournament than any other British woman.

If you want to call her a choker, that’s up to you but British tennis could do with a few more like her. 

Britian teenage tennis triumph Emma Raducanu is through to round three of the US Open

Britian teenage tennis triumph Emma Raducanu is through to round three of the US Open

MCILROY RIGHT TO DEFEND DECHAMBEAU

It reflected well on Rory McIlroy that he spoke up for Bryson DeChambeau last week. DeChambeau is different and people fear difference. 

The way DeChambeau is being treated by other golfers and by elements of US audiences is starting to look like Lord of the Flies. 

STRONG START FOR SKY 

Sky’s coverage of the new FA Women’s Super League season began well on Friday. 

Studio analysis was sharp, informed and professional, the commentary team was superb and viewers were treated to two fine Manchester United goals and a goalline technology controversy in their 2-0 home win over Reading.

Inevitably, a few men who feel threatened by interest in the women’s game protested about it being ‘rammed down their throats’. 

The advice to those men remains the same: if you don’t like it, do us all a favour and get dinner ready.

Sky Sports' debut Women's Super League coverage has been a success on the first weekend

Sky Sports’ debut Women’s Super League coverage has been a success on the first weekend

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