RAHEEM STERLING believes his blistering start to the season shows he is coming of age at Manchester City.
The England ace hit a Champions League hat-trick against Atalanta on Tuesday to make it 16 goals for club and country this term.
1 Sterling has come off age in the last few years – and is now Man City's top man
It comes on the back of the 31 he scored during the 2018-19 campaign — by far his best season in front of goal.
Sterling, 24, reckons he has grown up since he arrived at the Etihad more than four years ago and has also had a long think about what kind of player he wants to be.
The former Liverpool man, who cost City £49million, realised that taking players on but having no end product was not the best use of his talent.
Asked how he has become more clinical in the last 18 months, QPR youth product Sterling said: “One is age.
"I was 19, 20 when I came to City and I was nowhere near the maturity level I am now.
“Another is being in a good team. And then it is down to yourself, it’s what you want to do in football.
“Do you want to be a winger who takes ten people on and does nothing or do you want to be someone who helps win games for your team. I think it comes with maturity.
“I keep learning each day to be better at it and to be involved in the game and be effective.”
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While City boss Pep Guardiola will look to rotate his squad in the next couple of weeks, Sterling has become almost undroppable.
And within minutes of grabbing the match-ball on Tuesday night, he had already set his sights on Saturday’s opponents Aston Villa.
He said: “I’m thriving and just waiting for the next game really.
“I’ve scored a hat-trick and I’m looking forward to the weekend to hopefully get some chances and be involved again to score some goals.”
Guardiola had spoken before the game about City not being clinical enough to become kings of Europe this season.
Yet their 5-1 hammering of Atalanta means they already have ten from three games in the current European campaign.
Sterling admitted he could have had four against the Italians but said: “I thought we were clinical. We stayed patient, waited for our chances and then we took them.”
England and City team-mate John Stones believes Sterling’s hunger for scoring goals and making a difference is shining through.
STERLING DITCHED FEAR FACTOR
WHEN Pep Guardiola and his staff started working with Raheem Sterling three years ago, he was “scared” of the goal.
Now the Manchester City star, 24, is one of the most effective forwards in Europe.
His hat-trick against Atalanta on Tuesday took his tally to 16 this season for club and country — and he also played a big part in both of Sergio Aguero’s goals.
Assistant boss Mikel Arteta said getting rid of Sterling’s fear was one of the first things they tried to do when they arrived at the Etihad.
In the book Pep’s City — the Making of a Superteam, which goes on sale today, Arteta also said the £49million price-tag weighed heavily around the former Liverpool man’s neck.
He said: “The huge transfer fee was pretty detrimental in terms of his self-confidence. As things didn’t come off for him you could almost see Raz fading away.
"We wanted him much closer to the penalty area. It was like he was a bit scared of the goal.
“We wanted him to become the kind of player who would get us a goal every game, or even just making two or three big chances.
“We wanted him constantly generating goal threat and we wanted him to lose the fear. He needed to believe in himself — to believe he could be the best.”
Guardiola saw similarities between his former Barcelona team-mate Romario and Sterling.
And the book also says City staff believe Sterling has the explosive first steps of another Nou Camp legend, Lionel Messi.
The winger became only the eighth English player to score a hat-trick in the Champions League. His 11-minute second-half treble was the third quickest in the history of the competition.
Defender Stones said: “He’s been on fire. He’s got that mentality, he wants more.
“He might be disappointed because he could have scored four but I think he should be very proud for scoring a hat-trick in the Champions League.
“I’m very happy for him and he helped us to make a step closer to the next round.”
Stones has endured a frustrating year at City due to injuries and a loss of form — but is likely to be needed in the next few weeks.
Key defender Aymeric Laporte is out until the New Year at least with a knee injury.
And makeshift centre-back Rodri picked up a hamstring problem against Atalanta which will keep him sidelined for at least a couple of weeks.
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Stones, 25, said: “It’s always frustrating going through injuries, it was a big setback. Now I’m back. I feel strong and healthy again. Hopefully I can stay fit.
“It’s been a difficult time but the guys have made a step up. They have done jobs for the team that they are not used to, so I give all the credit to them.
“Now we are back, we need to stay fit to help the team to fight for all the competitions.”