England legend John Barnes has warned Raheem Sterling is facing the biggest test of his career.
Sterling lost his automatic starting place at Manchester City towards the end of last season and now faces a new threat after the £43million arrival of Bernardo Silva.
Former Liverpool winger Barnes is a big admirer of 22-year-old Sterling but insists he must improve on his all-round game to realise his full potential.
Sterling joined City two years ago in a £49m deal and the similarities with Barnes are striking as both were born in Jamaica, played for Liverpool and have the ability to set the world alight for England.
But Barnes insists that Sterling must really push on under Pep Guardiola next season and says some tough love might be needed in the way he recalled ex-Liverpool boss Ronnie Moran being hard on Ian Rush at Anfield.
Barnes, 53, said: “Towards the end of the season Raheem was on the bench. Now they’ve signed Bernardo Silva so that’s an interesting development to see how that goes.
“Raheem has great potential. It’s effortless when he dribbles past players. He has to improve on things. His end product is going to be important.
“It’s the Ian Rush thing again. If Raheem was with Ronnie Moran he would say to him: ‘Yeah, you beat five players but then the ball goes over the bar.’ That’s instead of ‘You beat five players how great is that?’
“You have to be harder with them for them to understand the things they need to improve on.
“I think I’ve seen a marked improvement in Raheem’s end product since he’s been with Pep. His finishing, his passing is better.”
Barnes insisted that Sterling needs to play with experienced players who can guide him as he said Arsenal winger Theo Walcott has needed more guidance at times during his career.
“Look at Theo. He’s a great player who has had a fantastic career,” said Barnes. “But in terms of what we expected from a 17-year-old to 27 maybe he hasn’t developed as much as we’d hoped.
“Raheem is 22 but the difficulty is he’s also playing with a lot of inexperienced players. Having players like Kenny Sansom or a Gary Lineker to help you along the way is important.
“I could easily have thought ‘I’m at Liverpool, I’m a superstar’ but I had players I looked up to because of their seniority. At Watford, Wilf Rostron was there and he was kind of an Arsenal substitute.
“He played behind me but I didn’t think ‘I’m John Barnes’. Wilf said ‘do this or that’ and I did it. Now the emergence of the superstar youngster means they have to be careful.”
Sterling has the ability to be a key member of England’s new world as they try to move forward under Gareth Southgate ahead of next year’s World Cup.
But Barnes insists they should live for the moment, not set far away targets and that will help them become successful in the longer term.
Barnes added: “This team now, if you handle them properly and correctly then in the next four years they can do something. But I’m not expecting them to win the next Euros even. I just want them to play with freedom.
“If we don’t do well, we shouldn’t cast them aside. Support them, then they can grow and improve at their own pace – the right pace. It has to be a slow process.”
**John Barnes is an ambassador for Ladbrokes.**