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When Raheem Met Ricky... and Mario

With Anfield and Melwood left eerily empty during the always rebarbative international break, supporters have a chance to reflect on the exciting possibilities that are only beginning to unfold for the squad Brendan Rodgers has assembled.

Brendan was oblivious to Mauricio's magic finger slowly shrinking him as the match wore on...
Brendan was oblivious to Mauricio's magic finger slowly shrinking him as the match wore on...
Jamie McDonald

A horrible realisation dawned on me some years ago when, in the course of my professional life as a teacher, I stood quite alone in an overcrowded room. This was not the solitude commonly felt by educators when their effusive urgings are met with a kind of bovine apathy from the youthful faces staring back at them, nor was it the uneasy realisation that one's efforts to impart a concept have been quite otiose. Any tutor will be familiar with such workaday vexations. No, the wretched epiphany experienced that afternoon was of a different ilk.

In attempting to elucidate the delightful layers of meaning vying for attention in the lyrical beauty of Shakespeare's Hamlet, I had recourse to refer to the comedy stylings of Reeves and Mortimer. It seems an odd reference, I'll grant you, but in my profession one reaches for whatever points of comparison seem most apposite. These surrealist British comics were a 90s sensation and remain your scribbler's favourites. As a man born in the decade of glam rock and space hoppers, such a reference seemed positively modern but alas, as the tumbleweed blew across the classroom, it became apparent that my audience hadn't even been born when my favourite purveyors of the absurd were in their heyday. Ouch.

On Sunday, following an exhilarating triumph at White Hart Lane, which featured a cornucopia of youthful talent, Brendan Rodgers inadvertently made a similarly redundant reference when he likened Raheem Sterling's mazy dribble to the famous slaloming FA Cup run of Argentinian legend Ricky Villa, only to compare his finish to that he supposed might be essayed by acerbic comedian Ricky Gervais. As the older folk smiled at the Antrim man's drollery, the target of the jibe, Liverpool's remarkable young attacker, was quite lost. Sterling has developed into a man of considerable maturity, given his tender years and the burdensome responsibility thrust upon him, but whilst the early tension between player and manager seems to have utterly dissipated and been replaced by mutual respect, the floppy-armed wonder was quick to humbly insist that he will improve.

"I had to look him up," explained the dramatically coiffured forward, "and when I checked the name I was, 'Oh, OK, that’s who it is.' When I was told what he said I didn’t even understand it. But I typed both names in so I know what he meant now. He’s joked about it and said it was like a baby’s shot. He’s given me a bit of stick for it but my finishing is something I’m improving on and will keep improving on. Hopefully next time I’ll score two."


For his part, Rodgers deserves more than a little praise for the alacritous progress being made by his youthful side and Sterling in particular. The diminutive bundle of energy and precocious skill is, in many ways, the perfect emblem of the Rodgers era to date -- ever motile, constantly surprising, belligerently pressing opponents and all at breakneck pace. Rodgers, for all he is given to hyperbole, does balance his praise with a little reminder of what remains imperfect. Like any good teacher he reinforces the positives without ignoring the negatives and his post-match analysis of Sterling is a case in point.

"He needs to be better on his left foot!" the Liverpool boss playfully scolded. "It was a wonderful bit of skill, he came inside with a great touch of the ball and I think he was caught in two minds. He was going to toe-poke first with his right foot then he tried to work it onto his left side and didn't quite finish it. But he was fantastic today again and got another goal. His pressure and tactical awareness in the game is improving and, for a kid of 19, he has been great.

"He's flexible -- we've tried to develop him to be able to not only be a wide player, but to have the freedom and awareness to play on the inside. It was perfect for him today. From the inside, he can get turned, he can press and he can work. Then when we went to 4-3-3, he went onto the side of the field and he's got that pace to penetrate in behind. It's important for me that they have the intelligence to play in a number of positions and I think he is developing that well."

To an already heady cocktail of youthful brio and insistent talent, Rodgers made the late addition of one Mario Balotelli. The pyrotechnics enthusiast is a famously volatile presence and the manager has backed himself to bring the best out of the outrageously talented attacker. His debut against Spurs was massively encouraging with the intimidatingly physical forward wreaking havoc in the Londoners' defence and linking well with the likes of Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge.

The only negative was his errant finishing and yet, for this scribbler at least, that might be interpreted as an almost touching display of nerves from this famously confident star -- a sign that he was genuinely engaged in his new role, anxious and eager behind that famously inscrutable game-face. Lazy media narratives, as we know in the case of Daniel Sturridge, can be hard to shrug off and Balotelli has not helped matters with his erratic off-field antics. Steven Gerrard, who has previously admitted to being wrong about Sturridge, seems to be cautiously treading the same path when it comes to the Italian superstar.

"What impressed me was that all eyes were on him with people asking, 'Is he going to work hard for the team or is he going to play like a spoilt kid?'" averred the recently retired England captain. "Everyone was waiting to criticise him, but I thought he was a terrific team player. He did a lot of ugly work for the team and showed some great touches. You’ve got to remember, he’s only had maybe three or four 45-minute run-outs in pre-season [before his move to Anfield]. With more game time and when he’s got used to the manager and the players around him, he’s going to be a terrific player for us.

"With all due respect to Man City and AC Milan, Mario is going to get a different kind of support here. These are the best fans in the world and they always get behind our strikers. I’ve told Mario it’s all there for him. If he plays well and works hard, these supporters will get behind him. He won’t have experienced support like what he’s about to get."

If Balotelli does respond to the promptings of his captain and manager, he will indeed become the darling of the Anfield faithful. Frankly, an attack featuring the lavishly gifted mohican-fancier alongside Sterling and Sturridge, with the likes of Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic yet to be properly added to the alchemy, is a delightful prospect for Liverpool supporters to contemplate during the irksome inactivity of the international break. Hopefully, Liverpool's youngsters will  spend any down-time brushing up on British culture of recent times, lest their manager's playful barbs miss their mark once more.

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