Rodgers and Hodgson Praise Sterling

Raheem's new technique for eluding defenders had a fatal flaw... - Michael Regan

After his stellar introduction to the Liverpool first team last season, Raheem Sterling understandably faded a little. This campaign he has added strength and maturity to his trickery and garnered praise from his managers for club and country.

As this most propitious and exhilarating of seasons enters the final stretch, Liverpool Football Club have positioned themselves adroitly within striking distance of the ultimate prize. With eleven games remaining Brendan Rodgers' side are six points clear in the Champions League positions and with a goal difference that makes it effectively a gap of seven. The stretch to the summit is an even smaller four points and its proximity has caused even the most doleful of souls to strike up an uncomfortable relationship with optimism, as hopeful expectation confuses their normally saturnine temperaments. Your scribbler has taken much delight in the baffled smiles of relentless miserabilists. It's been that kind of year.

Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have, plainly, been the star men and the duo occupy the top two positions in England's scoring charts. Behind them Jordan Henderson has excelled as the insistent beating heart of the team, and in defence Jon Flanagan has emerged as a local hero of real heart and no little poise, whilst Simon Mignolet, despite a maddening reluctance to stray from his line, has been in sublime shot-stopping form. One young man, however, has developed into a consistently excellent Premier League performer almost unnoticed amongst the the other, more radiant stars in the Anfield firmament; adding consistency, power and tactical awareness to his already considerable weaponry.

Raheem Sterling, for it is he, made a spectacular impact when he first broke into the team with his pace, dribbling skills and eye for a goal. These days, the young forward, still only 19, is a far more complete player, as adept slotting in at full-back as he is playing delicate one-twos with Suarez in the opposition's penalty area. Certainly he is physically stronger but he has learned to use his body efficiently so that even his comparatively diminutive frame can make itself felt in a defensive challenge and he can comfortably hold off a defender whilst bearing down on goal. Six goals in 23 appearances is also a healthy return for a wide forward who has often been asked to do as much defending as attacking.

The most effective tribute one can pay to Sterling is to say that in an attack featuring Sturridge, Suarez and magical unicorn that is Philippe Coutinho, not only has he never looked out of place but he has, in fact, often been the pick of the bunch. With his highly individual gait and flailing tyrannosaurus rex arms, the exciting attacker torments defenders and has the requisite phlegm to convert a goal chance, should it present itself. Indeed, his form has been so impressive that he has attracted the attention of the incumbent England boss, noted Utopian, Roy Hodgson.

The Three Lions' gaffer has been impressed with  the quintet of capped Englishmen regularly plying their trade for Liverpool. Uncomfortable as he must be watching his utilitarian two banks of four system utterly ignored by Brendan Rodgers' progressive side, he has acknowledged the splendid form of his potential squad members. Hodgson made particular mention of Sterling and it seems a good bet that in the likely absence of Theo Walcott, the young Red will travel to Brazil.

"They’ve been fantastic, they’ve played brilliantly well," he averred. "Their pressuring has been very good, they’ve made life very difficult for opponents. At Anfield in particular they’ve been very quick out of the blocks and it’s been hard for teams to find their rhythm and settle down. Then when they’ve won the ball, and they’ve often won it high up the field, they’ve been devastating with their attacking play.

"Raheem was with us for one of the games we played last year, early on. He’s a player I know from Liverpool but after bursting into the team and doing very well he disappeared for a while, but it’s great to see him back stronger than ever. I’m sure if we spoke to Brendan Rodgers he would say that’s just a normal progression for a young player. Sometimes you do burst onto the scene and after half a dozen games it gets a bit much and you have to take them out for a while.

"A player who is not having a good time at his club individually or collectively has to accept that he has to get his England head on and make that his focus.  The opposite is also true, so a player who is playing well for his club side, like the Liverpool players, they have to come to terms with the fact that they start afresh when they come to England. Hopefully they will bring their confidence and form with them, but it’s two different things. Let’s hope they can put any disappointments behind them or dampen down any euphoria."

It cannot just be me who had to stifle a chuckle at the idea that a spell away getting one's "England head on" under the guidance of Roy Hodgson would probably be the perfect way to "dampen down any euphoria." Were Sterling to be included, it would be an apt honour, reflecting the progress he has made at Anfield. After a less than "steady" year away from the pitch, the young man appears to have his mind firmly on retaining his first team berth. The potential he possesses is stunning and his new-found consistency has marked him out a really reliable option for Brendan Rodgers in this most pressurised of run-ins.

"In the period since he came into the team, he's been outstanding," insisted the Liverpool manager. "He's really grown as a young player - it's easy to forget he's still only 19 years of age. There's no doubt in his position that he's one of the best players in England. Over the course of these last few months, you could argue there hasn't been anyone better than him in the England squad in that position. It's a great reward for him, his maturity and how he's approached the pressures of playing because he's played with a wonderful freedom and is working very, very hard for the team. He's very deserving of his opportunity."

Deserving indeed. No doubt, as the eleven remaining matches in Liverpool's season unfold before us, we will all at some point shake our heads in wonderment at the audacious talent of Raheem Sterling and, mentally assuming the comforting Antrim brogue of the manager, mouth the word, outstanding.

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