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Raheem Sterling and Rebuilding Expectation

From perhaps lingering too long on the past to too eagerly anticipating a likely still distant future, and all in the course of a couple of hours. Perhaps tomorrow we'll have to focus on the now a little bit, but in the meantime it's time to get way too excited about the possibility that another member of Liverpool's academy might be able to make an impact with the first team in two or three years. Take it away, Raheem Sterling:

In the past its been the likes of Pacheco and Jack Robinson and Suso who have gotten all the press clippings, and there have also been some recent rumblings as to the bright future of Conor Coady. In any case, it's been impossible to ignore the sudden resurgence and growing optimism surrounding the Liverpool academy as the massive changes brought in during the 09-10 season's stumble towards seventh place seem to be showing quite positive early returns.

As has been touched on before, there has been suggestion in some quarters that the rebuilt academy--even more than Istanbul and Athens--could be the former manager's most lasting legacy with the club. At the time, many noted that the development of youth prospects under Benitez had slowed to a barely existent trickle, using it as another stick with which to beat at the embattled Spaniard. However, the reality of the situation was that for most of his time with the club Benitez had very little control over the academy, at least until his final year when he took on yet another behind the scenes political battle to seize control. Taking on one more fight, one more bit of maneuvering that distracted from his primary task of guiding the first team in the league, may have also been one final nail in his coffin. But if the sudden upsurge in quality at the academy this year is anything to go by, the results have well proven that such a drastic overhaul was indeed needed.

Now Liverpool have Rodolfo Borrell and Jose Segura in charge, the men who ran Barcelona's La Masia youth academy while current stars as diverse as Xavi and Iniesta and Messi and Pedro and Busquets and Pique and Fabregas and on and on and on were learning their trade. Now there are a wave of new young signings from Shelvey and Wilson at the top end to new youngsters like Suso and Silva and Sterling, the latest revelation at the under-18 level after the above performance against Southend in the FA Youth Cup. Not to mention that existing prospects like Coady or Robinson will by the time they have a realistic chance of breaking into the first team have played four or even five years in a system that prizes technical football above all else--a youth set up that now looks to Barcelona's pass and move, right down to the people who run it, rather than the typical all action no plot British youth set up, though as with past iterations of Liverpool it will still attempt to wed this continental approach to some of the things that set English football apart.

People have sometimes wondered about the long term identity FSG, John Henry, Damien Comolli, and all the rest might seek to stamp on Liverpool, with much talk of Arsenal connections early on, but it may well be that that future identity was set out last season when Rafa Benitez spent the dregs of his political capital to redevelop the academy and leave a pair of Barcelona gurus in charge.

Of course, one always does need to be cautious when looking at the development of youth players. Most won't make the final step up, and amongst those with the quality to do so their development can still be irreparably damaged by being pushed to do too much too soon. Even a player like Messi, widely considered to be the best in the world and though he made cameo appearances as early as seventeen, didn't become a fairly regular contributor with Barcelona until he was nineteen and a week-in week-out starter until a year later. That may still seem ridiculously young to many, but Raheem Sterling is only sixteen and already on the back of one grand display--his Owen moment of dominance at the youth level--you can't trawl too many Liverpool-centric corners of the web without stumbling across somebody wondering if perhaps he shouldn't at the very least get a spot on the bench for one of the upcoming matches against Sparta Praha.

It's certainly nice to be able to look to a potentially bright future after years in the wilderness at the youth level, and it's nice to occasionally watch highlights of a men-amongst-boys masterful performance and wonder what it might signal for the future, but a little bit of patience will still be required before members of Liverpool's revamped academy might realistically be expected to start making their way into the first team.

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