Raheem Sterling the scapegoat again despite matchwinning performances
Raheem Sterling might have had an afternoon to forget in Manchester City's 1-1 draw at Burnley on Saturday, but the focus on what will no doubt turn out to be one of the misses of the season has been more than a little over the top. Let's not make any excuses for the winger failing to convert into an open net from four yards out, but it has felt like the knives have been sharpened for him because of it.
The home fans at Turf Moor have had a bizarre obsession with seeing Sterling fail ever since his move to the Etihad. They have continually booed him in each of his appearances against the Clarets for no discernible reason. It was a tough visit to Lancashire for him last season, where he was jeered after going off injured, and it got no better on Saturday when he sliced wide from an almost unmissable position.
When the fourth official held his number up a few minutes later, the reaction from the stands was almost as loud as when Johann Gudmundsson equalised in the closing stages. Social media seemed to delight in piling on the winger's misery, especially since the miss went on to prove costly with Burnley's late goal.
There's something about Sterling that attracts more criticism for his failings, something that his teammates, at both club and international level, manage to escape when making mistakes. There are even City fans, though now in the minority, who are still yet to be convinced that he's up to the job -- but if this season hasn't changed their minds, then they'll never warm to him.
From the moment he forced his way back into the team, earning his first start of the season in the 2-1 win at Bournemouth, he's been one of the key figures in City establishing their 13-point lead at the top of the table. By full time in that, the third game of the campaign, he'd scored two goals that had earned Pep Guardiola's side four points.
Almost as if to prove he can't stay out of the media spotlight, he was rather harshly sent off for a second yellow card for his celebrations of that last-minute winner at the Vitality Stadium.
A tally of 19 goals in 34 appearances so far this season in all competitions -- far better than he's managed in the whole of any other campaign -- suggests that miss was a one-off, bad day at the office.
He's often accused of not being a natural finisher, and it does occasionally look like he's far from the complete article, but his scoring rate for Guardiola says that it's just not true. If anything, he's been the player that City have relied upon when the pressure has been mounting -- late goals in 2-1 wins over Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Southampton, and strikes in the tight 1-0 and 3-2 wins at Newcastle and West Brom all earned City victories in tough matches.
No other player in the squad has been as reliable at turning a draw into a win as Sterling this season. His header in City's 2-0 FA Cup win at Cardiff ended his longest goal drought since August, which ran to just four games. If it is true that he's not a good finisher, fans would be delighted to see what he can do when he's improved that area of his game.
Despite all of that, one bad miss at Burnley has opened the door for the critics. The winger's form all season hasn't followed the narrative that was established when he left Liverpool, as many pundits -- largely ex-Liverpool players, it has to be said -- were heavily critical of his decision to quit Anfield. He appeared to be changing public perception with his performances, but it seemed the public were just waiting for him to make a mistake.
There's no doubt Sterling should have scored at Burnley and City should have been entering the final stages of the match with a 2-0 lead. Equally, though, Sergio Aguero, Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne all had good chances to put the game to bed and they all failed. Had Kyle Walker not gone to sleep when Gudmundsson ran past him, it would have stayed 1-0.
Guardiola constantly talks about attacking and defending as a team, so while he'll be frustrated that Sterling missed an open goal, he's be just as annoyed at the rest of his players for not finishing off Burnley when they had the opportunities.
City fans have reaped the rewards of Sterling's form all season and it's one of the main reasons why there is little sense of jeopardy about the club's title aspirations. With a 13-point lead, it's difficult to worry about how a bad result might have a knock-on effect.
When the misses of the season compilation videos are made in May, Sterling's howler at Turf Moor will no doubt feature heavily. However, the winger will be having the last laugh, if City can continue with their imperious performances for the next few months.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney