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Sterling Back in Liverpool This Week, Ready for Trip to Aston Villa

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For the second match in a row Liverpool were without their talented 20-year-old attacker, who had been given a midseason break by his manager but will now be expected to play a part in next weekend's trip to Aston Villa.

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A Liverpool attacking contingent that does not feature Raheem Sterling has been a rare sight this season. The England international has been a mainstay in Brendan Rodgers' squad, featuring throughout the forward area and, most recently, settling in as a number nine for the first time in his senior career. He has consistently been the most dangerous attacking player in a team that has badly missed Daniel Sturridge, and while Sterling doesn't possess the goalscoring prowess of last season's second-leading scorer, he's done an admirable job for the team.

He's also shown signs of tiring, however, with both physical and mental fatigue evident in a season that's seen him lead the Premier League in minutes played. That led to a planned break this past week, with the player visiting Jamaica and missing two Liverpool matches to get some badly needed rest ahead of what's sure to be a taxing run-in.

Rodgers explained the decision in the wake of Liverpool's 1-0 win at Sunderland on Saturday afternoon:

"Raheem will be back next week. It's something that was already planned from the summer. In my time here, in two and a half years, he's come from the youth team through to becoming a full international player and one of the best young players in European football. There's a lot asked of him and if I was selfish I would maybe have him here with me for every single minute because he's been brilliant, but I need to think of the kid and the long-term for Liverpool and for him.

"I felt after the Christmas period, because he's played a lot for me - he's played over 100 games already as a kid and he's just turned 20 - it would be a good period for him to have a rest. He missed the FA Cup tie and missed today's game, then he rejoins us again next week and will be fresh and fit for the second half of the season."

It's nice to see Rodgers coming good on his words earlier in the season about the need to protect Sterling, and even better if his return is accompanied by an announcement of a new contract. As discussed earlier in the week, the club are increasingly confident that a deal will be done soon, and yesterday saw reports of a deal possibly announced in the coming week.

Two wins on the bounce and a rested Raheem Sterling--whose future at the club is close to being secured long-term--are undeniably positive things, and they are providing reasons for cautious optimism among supporters as Liverpool work through a crucial two months to start the new year.