They have been Pep Guardiola’s favorite players for goals at Manchester City.
Sergio Aguero, the predator of the penalty bench described by his manager as a “lion in the jungle”.
Raheem Sterling, the once striated winger who has become a composed and prolific finisher.
Consider this: Aguero and Sterling were City’s top two Premier League scorers in each of Guardiola’s first four seasons at the club, combining for a total of 27 goals (2016-17), 39 (2017-18), 38 (2018-19) and 36 (2019-20).
Now consider this: For the biggest game of Guardiola’s career at City – the Champions League final against Chelsea in Porto on Saturday – Aguero and Sterling will almost certainly not be in the squad.
“I have to make the decision which is the best to win the game,” Guardiola said.
And that means not selecting the two players who have served Guardiola the best by scoring goals since 2016.
Still, her choice is understandable – and it all comes down to trust.
Along with Aguero, Guardiola doesn’t trust the Argentina striker to be healthy enough to contribute to a game of this magnitude. Aguero, City’s top scorer with 260 goals and arguably their all-time best player, has struggled with fitness throughout what will prove to be the last of his 10 seasons at the club and hasn’t even got just 25 minutes into the game on Sunday in this was probably his last Premier League game.
Aguero, naturally, still scored two well-scored goals against Everton, but that won’t be enough to persuade Guardiola to start him on Saturday. He will have to settle for being a potential super-submarine in his last appearance at City ahead of a planned move to Barcelona.
“I hope, I hope, I hope,” said Aguero, 32, “but I don’t know. If I play for a few minutes I’ll do my best.
With Sterling, Guardiola appears to have lost confidence in the England international’s ability to influence the biggest matches. Sterling has not started in any of City’s fixtures against Borussia Dortmund or Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League quarter-finals and semi-finals, respectively, with Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden preferred in the wide positions.
Sterling’s production has declined significantly, from 35 goals in 57 appearances in all competitions for club and country in 2019-20 to 16 goals in 53 appearances in 2020-21. He’s only had one goal in his last 15 appearances for City, and his dribbling and final ball just hasn’t been sharp.
“This season, for me personally, has been very strange,” Sterling said last month. “But nonetheless, I continue to enjoy my football and give my all to the team.”
Guardiola said earlier in the week he was still unsure of his squad roster for the final, but the selection debates are likely to be left-back and defensive midfielder. His five most attacking players are all but stuck: Mahrez and Foden on the sidelines, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as interchangeable false nines, and Ilkay Gundogan as central attacking midfielder.
This quintet primarily gives City control, which Guardiola craves more than anything else – especially in a crowded season like this where energy conservation has been paramount and therefore possession of the ball has been vital. In that sense, it’s pure opportunity, a tactic suited to the times.
This means that the objectives have been distributed. Who, for example, could have predicted that Gundogan – previously a substitute midfielder – would be the team’s top scorer this season with 17 goals in his more adventurous new role?
Just as he would love an outstanding goalscorer in his squad, Guardiola knows he can cope with this new group of attacking midfielders and the most solid defense of his time at City behind them.
Don’t expect this to be a long term thing. With Aguero leaving, a player like Erling Haaland or Harry Kane could easily replace him to give City back a natural center-forward.
Sterling, 26, could be back in shape next season, with City perhaps playing at a faster pace to accommodate their more direct style.
For now, however – and as unlikely as it might seem 12 months ago – Sterling and Aguero are indispensable for a Champions League final, when the margins can be finer than in any other football.