Oliver Smith charts the impressive improvement of Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling, saying sometimes one person’s misfortune is another’s lucky break.
In the case of 19-year old Raheem Sterling, his opportunity to impress came after Daniel Sturridge suffered an ankle sprain in training at the end of November. With the previously prolific England striker on the treatment table throughout December and only now on the brink of a return to first team action, Sterling took the chance to show his worth with both hands.
At that pivotal point in both Sterling’s season and his development as a player, he was arguably in the last chance saloon.
There was pressure on Sterling from the moment Rafael Benitez beat off competition from a raft of other top clubs in 2010 to sign him from QPR for an initial fee of £600,000, which could ultimately rise to the princely sum of £5 million. At the time, he was only 15 years old.
He appeared to rise to that pressure, however, during the first half of the 2012/2013 campaign, when his impressive performances earned him a new long-term contract at the club. Unfortunately, after putting pen to paper on that contract in December 2012 Sterling’s form began to drop, and he only started three more League matches for the rest of last season.
A frustrating thigh problem did nothing to help his cause, either, as he was absent for the final seven weeks of the season and also missed out on going to the Under-21 European Championships in Israel with England.
Beginning the current campaign with little doubt that he would be on the fringes of the first team, some were suggesting a loan move may have been the best option for Sterling. As off-field issues also proved a distraction, there were questions about Sterling’s attitude and temperament that needed answering as well.
Prior to Sturridge’s ankle injury, Sterling had made just one Premier League start this season. With the so-called SAS firing on all cylinders, there was just no room for Raheem in the Reds’ attack and he frequently found himself on the side-lines.
However, Sterling has now started nine consecutive matches, and a consistent run of games has worked wonders for his form.
Not that that was immediately obvious at the time. Sterling and Moses were both handed starts against Hull City due to Sturridge’s setback, but neither performed well in what was an afternoon to forget for Kopites, as Rodgers’ men fell to a 3-1 defeat at the KC Stadium.
Now, though, the difference in quality between the two has become glaringly obvious. While Moses has languished on the bench and failed to take any of the opportunities he has been given to impress, Sterling has gone from strength to strength.
After scoring only his fourth goal for the club in his 50th Liverpool appearance during Suarez’s demolition of Norwich City at Anfield, Sterling went on to find the back of the net in consecutive matches against Spurs and Cardiff, and would have extended that scoring streak to three matches had competent officials been present at the Etihad Stadium on Boxing Day.
Most recently, Sterling was involved in both of the goals against Oldham Athletic, assisting Aspas for the opener and seeing the Latics’ Tarkowski divert his strike into his own net late on to guarantee Liverpool’s place in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Evident over the last few weeks have been the attributes that made Benitez willingly to part with so much money to sign a talented 15-year old with bags of potential almost four years ago. Creative, inventive and skilful, Sterling enjoys running at defenders and his pace enables him to put opponents on the back foot.
Although he admittedly has to work on his decision making and become more clinical in front of goal, he has found the net more frequently in recent weeks and appears to have developed a fruitful understanding with Luis Suarez, who is surely the perfect mentor for any 19-year old hoping to make a name for themselves at Anfield.
With Sturridge on his way back from injury and FC Basel’s Mohamed Salah reportedly on the verge of a move to Merseyside, Sterling could well face extra competition for his place in the starting-line up soon, and some highly questionable reports have even linked him with a loan move to Welsh outfit Swansea City.
However, Brendan Rodgers’ policy of rewarding those in form with more matches should benefit Sterling, who has become one of the first names on the boss’ team sheet after stepping up to the plate and performing well recently. Moreover, with Liverpool looking to improve their squad depth in the transfer window, it would make no sense to sign a player like Salah and then immediately ship out the in-form Sterling on loan.
Raheem is on the rise and the Reds’ will be rewarded for being patient with him and allowing him to continue to flourish at Anfield.