They’ve been Pep Guardiola’s go-to players for goals at Manchester City.
Sergio Aguero, the penalty-box predator described by his manager as a “lion in the jungle.”
Raheem Sterling, the once-streaky winger who has grown into a composed and prolific finisher.
Consider this: Aguero and Sterling were City’s top two scorers in the Premier League 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 match in Guardiola’s City career – the Champions League final against Chelsea in Porto on Saturday – Aguero and Sterling almost certainly won’t be in the team.
“I have to take the decision which is the best to win the game,” Guardiola said.
And that means not selecting the two players who have served Guardiola best in scoring goals since 2016.
Yet his choice is understandable – and it all boils down to trust.
With Aguero, Guardiola does not trust the Argentina striker to be healthy enough to contribute in a game of such magnitude. Aguero, City’s record scorer with 260 goals and quite possibly its greatest-ever player, has had fitness issues throughout what will prove to be the last of his 10 seasons at the club and was even only afforded 25 minutes off the bench on Sunday in what was likely his final Premier League game.
Aguero, naturally, still scored two well-taken goals against Everton but that won’t be enough to persuade Guardiola to start him on Saturday. He’ll have to make do with being a potential super-sub in his final City appearance before an expected move to Barcelona.
“I hope, I hope, I hope,” the 32-year-old Aguero said, “but I don’t know. If I will play a few minutes, I will give my best.”
With Sterling, Guardiola appears to have lost faith in the England international’s ability to influence the biggest matches. Sterling didn’t start in either leg of City’s meetings against Borussia Dortmund or Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, in the Champions League, with Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden preferred in the wide positions.
Sterling’s output has dropped markedly, from 35 goals in 57 matches in all competitions for club and country in 2019-20 to 16 goals in 53 matches in 2020-21. He has just one goal in his last 15 appearances for City, and his dribbling and final ball just haven’t been incisive.
“This season, for me personally, has been a very weird one,” Sterling said last month. “But nevertheless, I’m still enjoying my football and giving my all to the team.”
Guardiola said at the start of the week he is still not sure of his team lineup for the final, but the selection debates are likely at left back and in defensive midfield. His five most attacking players are all but locked in: Mahrez and Foden out wide, Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as interchangeable false nines, and Ilkay Gundogan as the attacking central midfielder.
That quintet primarily gives City control, which Guardiola craves more than anything else – especially in a congested season like this one where energy conservation has been paramount and therefore ball possession has been vital. In that sense, it is pure expediency, tactics to fit the times.
It does mean goals have been spread around. Who, for example, could have foreseen Gundogan – previously a back-up holding midfielder – being the top scorer in the squad this season with 17 goals from his new, more adventurous role?
Much as he’d like an out-and-out goalscorer in his team, Guardiola knows he can get by with this newly created front five 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 join as a replacement to give City a natural center forward once again.
The 26-year-old Sterling could be back in form next season, with City perhaps playing at a faster pace to suit his more direct style.
For now, though – and as improbable as it would have sounded 12 months ago – Sterling and Aguero are dispensable for a Champions League final, when the margins can be finer than in any other in soccer.