By Craig Rimmer
RAHEEM STERLING ran half the length of the Carrow Road pitch, avoiding the adoration of his teammates, headed in the direction of Brendan Rodgers, his manager and mentor. He had just scored the opening goal Norwich after 3 minutes and helped to tee up another Liverpool victory. 11 from 11.
It was the second time in a week that Sterling had scored a vital and sensational opening goal, having terrorised Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart seven days earlier, and Sterling would go on to score the decisive 3rd to secure the win over Norwich and put The Reds within spitting distance of the league title
Sterling has risen to the fore at the business end of a potentially glorious league title challenge. Under the shadow of a 24 year wait. At a club which has dared to dream again. The pressure is unlikely to get much more intense than this and Sterling has flourished in spite of it all.
He has been the most consistently impressive member of Liverpool’s attacking triumvirate over the course of the second half of the season. And, regardless of what the voting may or may not reveal, Sterling has also been the standout young player of this Premier League season.
Arguably helped by the focus of attention on the league’s leading goalscorers and player of the year candidates – Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge – Sterling has, until now, been able to make phenomenally rapid progress away from the kind of incessant attention and expectation which would normally accompany a young player in a similar circumstance.
Sterling is also one of those to benefit most from the arrival of Rodgers at Anfield. It was Dalglish who gave Sterling his debut as a 17-year-old a little over two years ago, but it was Rodgers who awarded him with his first league start in a 2-2 draw against Man City in August 2012.
Sterling was given a dressing down by Rodgers in the now famous scene from the Being Liverpool documentary. An episode which had the potential to be counter-productive, but Rodgers had identified something in Sterling and knew the best way to coerce the youngster into becoming the Liverpool player he is today.
Rodgers deserves credit for nurturing the conditions which have allowed Sterling to make such rapid progress and for standing by the player when many others were ready to write-off his immediate and long-term prospects.
To be honest, Sterling was abject in the 3-1 defeat to Hull City in early December. At that point even I had consigned him to a loan spell in the Championship or a return to the reserves. But the transformation since has been quite remarkable and included 9 goals and 5 assists.
I said recently on The Anfield Wrap that Sterling could be as good as, if not better than, Suarez a couple of years from now. An outrageous statement, made high on the adrenalin of another breathless performance from the Champions-elect, maybe. No doubt Sterling has a long way to go to justify those claims.
But I would challenge anybody to show me another teenager – past or present – who is as technically strong, tactically switched-on and blatantly confident in his own ability as Raheem Sterling is at the age of 19.
At 19, Luis Suarez had just sealed a move to FC Groningen and the Dutch Eredivisie. At 19, Raheem Sterling is winning Premier League titles and producing stand-out performances in a team of stand-out attacking footballers.
Sterling is deceptively strong, intelligent in possession and blessed with pace and sublime technique. But, it is his tactical intelligence, his ability to retain the ball, find the right pass or slow the game down, which set him apart. It is his ability to defy logic and convert from adept wide forward to, even more astute, number 10 with a spell filling in at right-back for good measure.
He has been key to Rodgers tactic of starting games on the front foot and regularly running teams into submission during the opening 20 minutes of matches. But he has also shown enough football intelligence to adapt his game according to the circumstance and according to the opponent.
His performances have impressed to an extent that even Roy Hodgson has found impossible to resist. A summer is Brazil remains a concern. Beyond the worry of what damage a summer with the Hodge could inflict on any young starlet is the possibility of fatigue for a player still only 19 and with the additional demands of Champions League football on the horizon.
The obvious comparison is Michael Owen. Owen was a similarly exciting prospect at a similar age. But, Owen’s game was more limited – a decent finisher, but reliant on pace with little subtlety to his game. Once the pace went and the injuries and fatigue took hold, Owen was always likely to fade.
Sterling has far more layers to his game and a much broader football intelligence. Furthermore, Rodgers has demonstrated an inclination to withdraw Sterling from the first team when he has seen fit and a summer of squad strengthening may afford the manager the option to rotate with more regularity next term.
What remains unquestionable is that Sterling’s potential is virtually without limit and, just as significantly, he has in Rodgers the ideal manager to fulfill it.
It is a potent mix and it means that Liverpool fans can have much more to look forward to than just glory in May.
Pics: David Rawcliffe / Propaganda