Heading into last season, Raheem Sterling was a squad player hoping to impress. Liverpool's squad seemed deeper than it had been a season before, and so a few cup starts and some league appearances off the bench seemed most likely. There was even talk of heading out on loan for the playing time. Fortunately for everybody, he stuck around. And when given the chance to impress, he took it.
This summer, he's one of the first names on Brendan Rodgers' teamsheet, and in pre-season has looked Liverpool's most important player—the best and most consistent attacker any time he's been on the pitch. Liverpool's most important player is a lot to put on a player who is still only 19 years old, though Sterling so far seems up to it. And to taking the kicks that are likely to come with it.
"It's part of the game, the physical side of it," said Sterling when asked about becoming a player opposition defenders are going to target. "You are going to get defenders that want to make sure you know they're there. It is all part of it—you've got to keep your temper and keep calm, and try to play the game and try to score so they know it’s not all about the physical part of the game."
That he will be seen as one of Liverpool's key players—perhaps even the key player—this coming season means a new set of challenges. But those new challengers, as far as Sterling is concerned, just mean that he's been doing something right, since the better you are as an attacker, the more work the opposition will put into finding ways to neutralise you.
"I think if you are getting kicked a lot on the pitch, it means you are a threat to the opposition because they want to stop you as early as possible," he said. "In this game, you’ve just got to look at people like Messi or Ronaldo—they get kicked all the time, which means they are doing something right, so that’s why people try to stop them as early as possible.
"I'm not saying I’m a Messi or Ronaldo, but it's the same that if you are in an attacking position, defenders will try to kick you. It is part of the game—you just have to get on with it and try to do your best. I like taking defenders on. I am learning each day and taking it all in my stride. I will definitely be keeping a cool temperament and doing my best for the team."