Does Raheem Sterling have a long-term future at Manchester City?
There are few more thrilling sights in the Premier than Manchester City pouring forward. Pep Guardiola's attackers can rip opposing defences apart with their pace, movement and inventiveness.
City face Arsenal at Wembley in the FA Cup semifinal and Guardiola is eager to win the competition and bring a trophy to the Etihad in his first season. At the start of the month his side went to the Emirates and drew 2-2 in the league. There were spells in that game, especially in the first half, where City's football was dazzling. Arsene Wenger's team could not cope with Leroy Sane's burst of speed, Kevin De Bruyne's thoughtful passing and Sergio Aguero's predatory instincts. Recalling those 45 minutes, Guardiola will feel confident at Wembley.
Raheem Sterling was heavily involved in that opening period in north London. The 22-year-old gave Nacho Monreal a difficult afternoon and it was something of a surprise when Guardiola withdrew the winger at halftime, replacing him with Yaya Toure.
After the game, the City manager was critical of Sterling's decision making. The England forward was demoted to the bench for the next Premier League match against Chelsea, where a 2-1 defeat effectively ended any slim hopes City had of winning the title.
Guardiola has so many options up front that something has to give whenever he needs to bolster the midfield. There are games when he can select Aguero, Sane, De Bruyne, Sterling and David Silva, but in matches where City need to get more bodies in the centre of the park Sterling is the most likely to benched.
Sane and De Bruyne are ahead of the former Liverpool winger in the pecking order. De Bruyne is three years older than Sterling and much farther along in his development. Sane is a year younger, but the German's raw pace and eye for goal have been increasingly impressive.
Where does this leave Sterling, a man who is likely to be a key figure for England in the run-up to the World Cup in a year's time? In a better place than it initially appears.
The winger is not the finished article. He is still learning. There are times when he takes on an opponent when a pass would be a better option. His crossing has improved significantly. Shooting has never been Sterling's strongest attribute and his goalscoring production -- six strikes in the league this season -- needs to increase.
Yet City believe that Sterling will be a key contributor in the foreseeable future, despite an expected clear-out at the Etihad this summer. He has worked hard on his game. At each stage of his development, just at the moment opponents started predicting his moves, Sterling has found something different in his toolbox to bemuse rival defenders.
The winger has another thing in his favour. Until City's academy starts to produce a regular flow of home-grown graduates who make the first team squad -- it will happen sooner rather than later -- the club needs English players. City paid nearly £100 million for Sterling and defender John Stones. There is a hefty premium on English talent in the Premier League. Once you buy it, it is unwise to let it go easily.
Sterling is one weapon in a many-pronged attack and Guardiola will switch things around to suit an individual match. There will be times when the winger will miss out but Sterling, De Bruyne, Sane are part of a long-term strategy that looks beyond specific games. They are slated to be the core of a forward line that can grow and improve over a number of seasons.
If City perform in the semifinal to anywhere near the standard they showed in the first half at the Emirates, Arsenal will struggle big time. Guardiola's substitution of Sterling in the league draw did not work: Toure slowed the game down too much and allowed Wenger's team a chance to get a foothold in the match. It is unlikely Guardiola will make the same mistake again.
Expect City to go full throttle at Wembley.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.