Keep Raheem Sterling, trust Phil Foden: Five things Manchester City need to do

City won the Carabao Cup for the third year in a row on Sunday, and are still in the FA Cup and Champions League

Alpha V1.0

Manchester City hoovered up their eighth domestic trophy under Pep Guardiola's reign with a 2-1 win over Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley on Sunday.

It was a third straight League Cup success for City under Guardiola and the 30th trophy of the Catalan's managerial career following similar success at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

City have won five of the last seven editions of a competition that ranks fourth on their list of priorities at the start of each season, behind the FA Cup, Premier League and the one trophy that has eluded serial domestic winners, the Champions League.

With the league almost certain to be surrendered barring a spectacular collapse by Liverpool, here are five things City must now focus on until the end of the season.

1) Target a long-term centre-back

While Liverpool can lay claim to having the best defender in world football in Virgil van Dijk, the nagging sense is that we have been denied a genuine challenge to that mantle following Aymeric Laporte's long-term injury. The classy Frenchman is slowly working his way back to full fitness but was not risked against Villa on Sunday, with John Stones paired alongside Fernandinho. Stones was at fault for Villa's goal, stumbling under a high ball. And while highlighting one mistake may seem petty, it forms the basis of wider concerns about the Englishman's place in elite company. Van Dijk and Laporte exude an aura of "thou-shalt-not-pass", Stones radiates doubt. Fernandinho has proved an able deputy but if City hope to close the gap on champions-elect Liverpool next season, signing an elite centre-back should be the top priority. Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly or Barcelona's Samuel Umtiti would both improve a City rearguard that has been breached 29 times in 27 league games, compared to Liverpool's 20 in 28.

2) Keep Raheem Sterling out of the clutches of Real Madrid

Few players are able to resist when Real Madrid flutter eyelids in their direction, and Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling may have been a little too forthcoming in an interview with a Spanish magazine about his admiration for the 13-time European Cup winners before the two sides met last week. City dominated at the Bernabeu, making them favourites to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals when they meet in the return leg at the Etihad on March 18. Sterling started on the bench in the 2-1 win in the Spanish capital, but then so did Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Fernandinho. Making a connection between Sterling's interview - where he was pictured with a City and Real Madrid shirt draped over each arm - and his omission from the starting XI as a form of punishment seems futile and takes away from the tactical masterstroke of Guardiola. Sterling is the most improved played in the Premier League over the past three years and it owes as much to his own ability as it does to the acumen of his gilded coach. The England international has arguably moved ahead of Kevin de Bruyne in the pecking order as City's most effective player. Keeping him out of the clutches of Madrid this summer though, especially if City are unsuccessful in their appeal from a Uefa two-season ban from Europe, could prove a tall order.

3) Give more responsibility to Gabriel Jesus

One of those to benefit from Sterling being benched in the last-16 first leg against Real was the Brazilian. Gabriel Jesus was magnificent in Madrid and scored the equaliser that inspired their come-from-behind victory. A return of 63 goals in 135 matches since joining City in January 2017 is impressive, especially when it has been spent largely playing back up to Sergio Aguero. The Argentine is City's record scorer, and his predatory instincts show no sign of waning with 22 goals already this term. But time catches up with everyone, and Guardiola has spoken often this season of the need to plan the long-term replacements of club stalwarts such as David Silva, Fernandinho and Aguero. At 22 Jesus is nine years younger than Aguero and his natural successor. He has served his apprenticeship and is ready to take over from the master.

4) Trust in Phil Foden

Much like with Jesus, Phil Foden has the feel and look of heir apparent to David Silva, who will leave City at the end of the season with the accolade as the club's best-ever signing. Both started the League Cup final against Villa, with Foden named man of the match, showing the control, touch and vision that echoed Silva in his pomp and made the Spaniard one the finest creative midfielders in a generation. At 19, Foden still has plenty of time to develop, and will only get better under the guidance of Guardiola. While City need to strengthen in some areas, they still possess an abundance of attacking riches.

5) Finish the season strong

With Liverpool a staggering 22 points clear at the Premier League summit, it is unthinkable that Jurgen Klopp's side will not go on to win a first title in 30 years, despite suffering their first setback of the season against Watford. And while City's title defence has been meek, sustaining the form of the previous two campaigns, when they amassed 198 points to clinch the 2018 and 2019 titles, has proved impossible to replicate for a third. City will rightfully celebrate their League Cup success, to go with the Community Shield in August, and face Sheffield Wednesday in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday, another trophy they hope to defend. With a potential two-season ban from the Champions League hanging over them - the Court of Arbitration for Sport are considering City's appeal - winning a first Champions League title, the trophy City's Abu Dhabi owners covet most, would make it another memorable season.

EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS