As all of us know Steven Gerrard is not a man whose opinion is to be discounted lightly, so when the captain of Liverpool, himself immortalised in song as being famously robust, tells you that Raheem Sterling is a very tough young man, it behooves you to listen. Back in February, Gerrard spoke of how fierce the lissom forward was in training and insisted that he tried to avoid Melwood collisions with the 19 year old for fear of coming off second best. We all smiled. The very idea. But the point was registered.
To be fair, Sterling is not deluded enough to think that the skipper's words were entirely earnest and modestly brushes off the compliment but he does agree that his own form has improved, something he puts down to an increased appetite for the game and a rigid focus on his own preparation and role in the team. This is a young man playing with a verve and passion that comes easier to the young but allied to a steely resolve and notable game intelligence that belie his tender years.
"I think Steven is just winding you up - I don't think he really means that!" the young England man insists. "But for someone to say that is a really good thing. I just try to fight and hustle - I don't think it's a strength thing. I'm just hungry and don't want to lose the ball or get barged off it. It's more of a hunger thing. Obviously for a player of that calibre to be talking about your strength, it must be working. I have been working on my upper-body strength and my core work, and it has been working. I can't say I haven't been feeling the effects of it - I've been feeling much stronger and sharper."
Stronger and sharper indeed. Sterling is wholly transformed, adding a considerable amount of muscle to his slight frame and losing not a scintilla of his pace in the process. To watch him surge forward, ball at his feet, backside protruding and writhing arms held aloft T-Rex style, one cannot but be invigorated. This is one of the top flight's genuine stars and, like so many of the others in that category, he dons the Liverbird on match day.
When one has emergent talent like Sterling, Jon Flanagan and Philippe Coutinho, it is crucial to have strong leadership and the captain and coach tag-team of Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers has been conjuring magic in that department all year. Calm and reassuring, both men are beacons of sanguine authority and sage advice. their mutual respect is a huge bonus to this Liverpool side and has had a unifying effect on the group.
In such an atmosphere, even the most troubled of individuals can be relaxed enough to thrive and Sterling, despite his off-pitch travails would seem to be one such soul. With eight goals in 34 appearances and a central role in the team, the fleet footed forward is very much a part of the exciting times at Anfield but he is quick to acknowledge the huge influence Gerrard's encouragement has had on his form and mentality.
"When players like Stevie are telling you to go out there and try to create something and the defensive side of the team will worry about any mistakes, for someone like that to have belief in you and tell you to go out there and create, that gives you even more of a buzz," he claims. "He's telling you he believes in you personally and the team believes in you. It's a good all-round thing with everyone having belief in each other and working for each other. It's working as we all wanted it to work."
The Kingston born youngster has clearly concentrated on all aspects of his game. Gerrard had stressed in the aforementioned interview that his teammate would do well to listen closely to Brendan Rodgers and it would appear that he has heeded the eloquent Irish brogue of his coach. Like many young attackers, Sterling came to prominence as a wide man but he has shown tremendous potential of late at the tip of a midfield diamond in the so called 'No. 10 role.' That he has the tactical maturity and intelligence is a great credit to him personally and betrays an attitude of tenacity and an appetite for learning that are very encouraging. This player does not consider himself the finished article and has the humility to be open to the influences and good examples around him.
"Every day I am learning with the players here - players like Philippe in the No.10 role," he says. "I look at everyone, look at everyone's game and try to take little things that I think I can improve in mine. I try to watch everyone day in, day out and the manager is helping me learn to play in certain positions; he's teaching me how to play in this No.10 role and making me realise I've to take a few less touches and play quicker.
"I think that's helping me to maybe take two touches and spin in behind. I'm really looking forward to keep working with him, learning day in, day out and hopefully I can be the best I can be. Learning from a manager like this and the players we've got, every day, it's an exciting feeling to come into training."
Four games remain for Raheem Sterling and his teammates to achieve something epoch-defining. A repeat offender when it comes to crimes against tonsorial elegance, the forward's current 'do is at least a statement of intent in that regard, even if the ginger tint make it less Travis Bickle and more Orphan Annie. As he did with his delightfully adroit goal against Manchester City, the young man will play a pivotal role in how the conclusion to the season plays out. Shorn of Jordan Henderson's sedulous zeal and likely to be missing the incisive flair of Daniel Sturridge, Brendan Rodgers' team will need Sterling at his assiduous best. This fine young footballer will doubtless prove up to the task once more.