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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

From replacement to irreplaceable, Leroy Sane's resurgence only adds weight to claims Manchester City are champions-elect

The German winger is back in manager's good books after starting the season on the bench

Leroy Sane, right, opened the scoring for Manchester City against West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns. Andrew Boyers / Reuters
Leroy Sane, right, opened the scoring for Manchester City against West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns. Andrew Boyers / Reuters

Leroy Sane’s pre-season did not go as anticipated.

Pep Guardiola voiced his concerns, airing his frustrations about a still-developing player’s attitude and application. Having joined Manchester City the previous summer, for an initial £37 million (Dh178m) fee, Sane had had a season to settle. He was expected to begin to justify the club’s significant investment.

But he disappointed. As such, he started one of City’s first five Premier League matches. Then a switch seemed flicked, and he has begun all five since. At the weekend, a fifth consecutive start brought with it a fourth goal and another dominant display. It confirmed, too, that a summer of relative discontent has been consigned to history.

Against West Bromich Albion, Sane scored the opener, assisted Fernandinho for City’s second and played an integral role in their third. It proved to be the winner. City triumphed again at The Hawthorns, this time 3-2. Once more, Sane starred.

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The same venue had provided the stage for his turnaround. In the League Cup last month, Sane scored twice as City triumphed 2-1. His second, a superb left-footed finish to a swift counter-attack, secured his side’s progression. Three days later, Sane got the first in the 5-0 thumping of Crystal Palace. From then, he has not let up.

In the space of a few months, he has gone from replacement to irreplaceable. In the past five league matches, he has played every minute bar the final six against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. No teammate has featured as often.

No one in the Premier League has been directly involved in as many goals. Sane’s latest contribution lifted him to six goals and five assists this season. Stretched across all competitions, he has scored eight times for City already. Only Raheem Sterling has more.

Stationed on either wing, both have been scintillating. Excelling under Pep Guardiola, each has offered more than simply goals and the odd game-changing moment. Now consistently meeting demands, one of football’s most demanding managers has rewarded them with near-constant selection.

At West Brom, Sane stretched continuously the hosts’ defence. He linked well with Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. It continued a theme: a wideman boasting blistering pace has been the regular recipient of the central pair’s precision.

Still only 21, Sane is displaying better decision-making. As his age betrays, there remains room for improvement, as well. Twice in the second half at The Hawthorns, the German failed to find Silva and Sterling when they appeared positioned to score. But he was not deterred. As the match wore on and as City craved a club-record 13th consecutive victory, Sane often offered an outlet. While others were withdrawn, he stayed.

Those on the bench underlined City’s strength in depth, particularly in attack. Sergio Aguero was an unused substitute despite being a solitary goal from becoming the club’s all-time record goalscorer. With a congested schedule and a trip to Napoli to come this week in the Uefa Champions League, Sterling was introduced after only an hour.

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It is why City appear well-stocked to avoid a repeat of last season’s decisive downturn. Twelve months on, they have made the best start to a Premier League campaign after 10 matches. They have won nine and drawn one, taking 28 points. They lead Manchester United, their closest challengers, by five.

City's goal difference stands at plus-29. In their past eight league matches, they have scored 32 goals and conceded five. Across all competitions, they are unbeaten in 21 matches. It is the longest run without defeat in the club’s history.

Before the weekend, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said, tongue only half in cheek, that City could clinch the title by January. After West Brom, Guardiola baulked at the claim.

But with Sterling's renaissance, the goals of Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, and the craft of De Bruyne and Silva, City are obvious favourites. Sane's surge only lends weight to that.