The England international shone in the 4-0 victory over Norwich as Pep Guardiola rested half his team ahead of trip to Sporting CP

With the Champions League starting seriously on Tuesday, Raheem Sterlings timing was perfect against Norwich City in the Premier League on Saturday night.

His hat-trick was perfect too – although his left-footed third only came after his penalty was stopped by Angus Gunn.

But it showed hes ready for the big occasion, starting with Sporting C.P on Tuesday night, and Pep Guardiola hailed his performance.

“He had a fantastic game, especially after the goal,” the Manchester City boss said. “He was confident and aggressive, direct.

“He made a fantastic goal, the second one he was there and he has been incredibly important for all these seasons.

“The amount of goals and assists, especially being involved in a long career. When he is confident, he is a really, really important player.”

The last sentence will be particularly pleasing to hear for Sterling because his importance to the side had seemed to be drifting.

Before his surprising recall for the 1-0 defeat against Chelsea in the Champions League final last May, Sterling had been left out of much of the run to Porto.

After starting the last-16 first leg against Borussia Monchengladbach, he played just 30 minutes in the next five matches across three substitute appearances.

It coincided with a dip in form that led to the possibility of him leaving the club in search of game time.

Thats started to change. He now has 10 goals in his last 16 matches – although his hat-trick were his first strikes this calendar year – and he is only behind Riyad Mahrez in Citys goalscoring charts.

“You’re not going to score everything that goes your way but keep shooting and the goals will come,” Sterling said. “To be a top team, the challenge is to keep winning every three days.”

Guardiola may deny it of course, but from his team selection it seemed that he had one eye on the trip to Lisbon.

Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Joao Cancelo, Aymeric Laporte and John Stones were all left on the bench – even with Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus missing through injury, although both have an outside chance of playing in Europe.

And when he turned to his substitutes late in the game, it was academy players James McAtee, Liam Delap and Kayky that were handed rare minutes.

For most coaches chasing a Premier League title, that would seem something of a risk, even if the victory over relegation-threatened Norwich moves them 12 points clear at the top of the table.

But with Liverpool having two games in hand, Guardiola warned ahead of the trip to Carrow Road that his side might have to be close to perfect if they were to fight off a challenge from Jurgen Klopps men.

That put pressure on senior players Sterling, Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho, who have found themselves in irregular roles in recent months, to carry the attack.

Sterlings opener was crucial after an entertaining opening period where City missed half a dozen good chances and both sides struck the woodwork. His sumptuous curling strike landed just inside the post and settled any potential nerves.

“When I controlled the ball on the edge of the box, my first intention was to try and get at the defender, shift a yard and shoot,” he said.

When Phil Foden squeezed a second over the line, Sterling was able to complete an easy hat-trick built on his instinctive movement.

Not only that, his link-up and understanding with left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko was very strong as they stretched Norwichs right-hand side to breaking point.

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