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Pep Guardiola hails Raheem Sterling as a 'fighter' ahead of Liverpool return

Pep Guardiola has hailed Raheem Sterling as a fighter as he prepares for another testing trip to Liverpool.

England forward Sterling struggled in all three of Manchester City's clashes against the Reds last season following his acrimonious move from Anfield.

Two of them came in quick succession with Sterling failing to impress in the League Cup final at Wembley in February and then being substituted at half-time of his first Anfield return four days later.

Sterling's campaign then ended in frustration with a groin injury followed by a harrowing time at Euro 2016, but this season he has been rejuvenated under Guardiola.

The 22-year-old scored City's winner in a crucial game against Arsenal earlier this month and then won the breakthrough penalty in the Boxing Day win at Hull.

Guardiola feels he is now in good shape as third-placed City face one of their title rivals on Saturday.

He said: "What I saw is that in the first part of the season, he was our key player up front. One month ago he was a little bit down - for two or three games he wasn't aggressive like in the first part of the season - but in the last two or three he came back and we need that.

"I am delighted about what he has done until now. He's a fighter. In the last two games he was decisive, the goal against Arsenal, the penalty against Hull when the game was tough, and we cannot forget he is so, so young.

"Of course all the players need a process to get better but we are so happy with what he's done."

Sterling is likely to receive a hostile reception from the Kop but Guardiola is confident he can handle, or even thrive, on that.

He said: "Always it is difficult when the crowd is not on your side. They whistle, it's not easy, b ut it is part of his growth and to become a better player. We are going to try and handle the situation but obviously he must focus on what he has to do himself. That's the only way he can handle it."

City will be boosted for the clash by the return of top scorer Sergio Aguero following a four-match ban.

Aguero has scored 16 goals this season but has also missed seven games through suspension and, while City have lost only one of those matches, Guardiola does not want him getting into any more disciplinary trouble.

He said: "We have had quite good results in seven games without him - except Leicester - but of course he's important for us.

"Can you imagine all the teams in the Premier League without their best striker for all those games? It would be tough for them, like it was tough for us, but we are there, one point behind Liverpool.

"Tomorrow we finish the first half of the season. Hopefully in the second leg Sergio can play all the games."

City have a poor record at Anfield with a 2-1 win in 2003 their only league victory there since 1981.

Guardiola said: "That shows how difficult it is for Manchester City to go there. We are going to try and change that statistic but it is always difficult there, for all the teams."

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