Raheem Sterling is fast becoming one of Europe's best under Pep Guardiola
"Raheem Sterling will play good -- I have confidence." That was Pep Guardiola's no-nonsense reply last July when asked about the forward shortly after seeing him in a match for the first time.
Manchester City had just beaten Borussia Dortmund on penalties in a friendly in the sweltering Chinese city of Shenzhen with second-half substitute Sterling looking like a man desperately short of confidence. Almost inevitably, he had missed his spot kick after looking fragile and unsure throughout following his return to the City squad on the back of a painful European Championship in which Sterling was singled out for criticism after England's embarrassing exit in the round of 16 to Iceland.
With City spending heavily on reinforcements in the summer with Leroy Sane, Nolito and Ilkay Gundogan coming in, it looked like Sterling could find himself on the periphery. But Guardiola called Sterling during Euro 2016 to reassure him that he was a major part of his plans and, six months on, the City boss's prophecy has come true.
The 22-year-old has been refreshed and re-enthused by the arrival of the Catalan. In the thrilling 5-3 victory over Monaco on Tuesday, Sterling was constantly demanding the ball, forcing dangerous full-back Benjamin Mendy to defend and linking up with City's attackers. The former Liverpool man's pace and confidence saw him drive into the box to open the scoring from Sane's cross and such was his eagerness, he almost got in the way of the fifth and final goal in the 82nd minute.
In a match that showcased some of the most exciting young attacking talents in Europe, Sterling wasn't afraid to show he belonged among them -- only Sane and Monaco's Bernardo Silva attempted more dribbles and only strikers Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe had more shots.
In Europe particularly, Sterling has blossomed. He has been directly involved in seven of City's goals from his seven starts, with two goals and five assists.
His impact in the Premier League has mirrored City's wobbly first season under Guardiola, but there is no doubt he's improved massively under the guidance of the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach.
Sterling's finishing has improved and his goal against Monaco came eight days after he scored the crucial opener in a difficult 2-0 win at Bournemouth. Surprisingly, he has fewer goals than at the same stage last season -- nine goals compared to ten -- but he scored just once from February onwards last season as his development and confidence stifled under previous boss Manuel Pellegrini, who had a more regimented setup and played with less freedom.
It would be a surprise if Sterling didn't go on to better his best-ever goalscoring haul of 12 for a season, particularly with his burgeoning understanding with Sane, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus -- before a fractured foot threatened to wreck the Brazilian's season.
Statistics don't always do justice the quality of a player's game, but Sterling's go part of the way to show his upturn on last season -- his first following his controversial £49 million move from Liverpool.
Over 33 games, his assists are up from seven to 11, dribbles completed are up from 55 to 85, total touches have risen from 1,464 to 1,752 and average miles per game have gone from 6.42 to 6.67. It all points towards a forward brimming with confidence and his former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard said he should start to be considered among the best players in Europe.
The former England captain said Sterling is determined to make the most of his talent and that Guardiola is helping him to flourish at the Etihad.
"I worked with him everyday and I know what he puts into his training," the BT Sport pundit said. "I know how much he wants to learn, he goes to managers and people for advice and he is prepared to improve his game and he listens.
"But what he does is he works for the team both ways, he does a hell of a shift defensively but he also breaks the line with running.
"He's aggressive, and he's starting to add assists and goals to his game. He is getting to that point now where you will have to start describing him in amongst the best."
It seems a long time since Guardiola flew in the face of popular opinion by backing Sterling weeks after England fans had started a petition to get him sent home from Euro 2016.
Jonathan is ESPN FC's Manchester City correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @jonnysmiffy.