Raheem Sterling reminded Pep Guardiola what to do when he starts.

The Man City winger was one of England’s top players in a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic, which secured the top spot in Group D. Sterling scored the only goal when winger Jack Grealish’s left-hand cross struck past Tomáš Vaclík in the 12th minute. Minutes before the goal he hit the post with a praised volley after he haunted the Czech rearguard.

With England stuttering at the start of the tournament, Sterling has become one of the standout players for Gareth Southgate’s men, with the 26-year-old channeling the frustration of falling under Guardiola’s pecking order to charity.

In the second half of last season, Sterling had to cut his playing time under Guardiola as the Spanish coach chose Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez at his own expense. With Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan both in the City’s starting XI, it’s questionable Sterling was the biggest loser in Foden’s rise in 2020-21.

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Sterling has stated that he is unhappy to be on the bench and said, “It’s just happiness, just being happy, enjoying my football and that’s what I do here with the national team.

“If you don’t play, you are not happy. That’s me, I’ve been since childhood. When I play football, I’m really happy, if not, I’m not happy.”

The player is apparently at a crossroads in his career. At 26, can he really afford to be a luxury reserve for the next year or two? Whisper it quietly, but there were links to a return from Sterling to Liverpool, if not this summer then the next.

Sterling’s contract expires in June 2023 and given his performance so far for England at Euro 2020, City may decide that the time has come to transfer the player to maximize value.

However, the jury remains open as to whether City would sell directly to Liverpool, their next title rival, in recent seasons. Despite the bitterness of some parts of the Liverpool fan base over Sterling’s move almost six years ago, the player has always spoken lovingly about the club and never burned bridges on his way out.

Looking at the Premier League landscape, Liverpool would be the best option for Sterling. It’s even less likely that City will sell him to Man United across town; Chelsea are not lacking in attack options and Arsenal and Tottenham cannot offer the allure of Champions League football.

Sterling would have less competition for seats in Liverpool than in City. Yes, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah are almost guaranteed places in the offensive trident, but every player is approaching their 30th birthday. In addition, Jürgen Klopp would have other options to switch Mane, Firmino and Salah during the long English season, with Diogo Jota and Sterling offering quality in reserve.

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Sterling’s signing would be a significant leap in quality from what Liverpool currently has among the established front runners.

From the club’s perspective, trying to bring Sterling back to Anfield this summer could prove very costly. Many of the club’s fringe players would first have to be transferred in order to have the necessary capital. Given Sterling’s good performance in England’s first three Euro 2020 games, City can enter negotiations from a position of strength.

Should Liverpool leave for a year, however, the balance of power would shift; Sterling had only a year left on his contract, and maybe City would let him go for an additional fee if he looked below and didn’t want to let him go for free.

Could a move to Europe for sterling be in sight? Barcelona and Real Madrid, the default options when considering moves to the continent, are unable to make big strides in the transfer market given their precarious financial condition; also for Juventus and Inter in Serie A; A move to FC Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga also appears unlikely, as the club does not make any major purchases – even before the global pandemic broke out; PSG could theoretically afford Sterling this summer but he would face stiff competition in the form of Neymar, Angel Di Maria and Kylian Mbappe.

Sterling’s options are indeed limited, both domestically and in Europe, which is why moving back to Anfield makes the most sense.

But will it happen? Time will once again be the judge.

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