Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers accepts Champions League football is unlikely to return to Anfield next season, but insisted once again that contract rebel Raheem Sterling will do.
This has been an uncomfortable week on Merseyside after the England forward’s ill-advised interview only heightened speculation over his future.
Sterling told the BBC that he turned down a new £100,000-a-week deal but insisted he was not a “money-grabbing 20-year-old”, while also admitting that links to Saturday’s opponents Arsenal were “quite flattering”.
Rodgers spoke to the forward about the week’s events yet still started him at the Emirates Stadium, where the Gunners all but ended Liverpool’s hopes of a top-four finish with a comfortable 4-1 win.
“The reaction and commitment of the players has been first class since (the defeat to Crystal Palace in November),” Rodgers said. “Really, up until the Manchester United game we were the form team and playing very, very well.
“But we have been dealt two big blows in these last two games, we haven’t performed how we would like and that has ultimately cost us in terms of the result.
“I very much doubt we will be in the top four now come the end of the season. There’s too much ground to make up – that’s the realistic view from me.
“Now, we must really focus on the FA Cup and that has got to be very, very important for us.”
Liverpool take on Blackburn in a replay of their FA Cup quarter-final on Wednesday, when talk about Sterling will no doubt still be dominating the headlines.
Rodgers is only interested on what is happening with the forward on the field, though, and wants another impressive performance from the England international at Ewood Park.
“There was no change in him,” he said of Sterling. “I thought he was excellent today, our best player.
“He was aggressive in his running, pressed the ball well, won the penalty and was very direct and strong, so I thought he was excellent today.”
Rodgers was peppered with questions about Sterling in the post-match press conference, during which he said “a big part of this is actually nothing to do with him”.
The Liverpool manager was coy when asked about outside influences destabilising both club and player, but was forthright when it came to the forward’s future.
“At 20 years of age – and just turned 20 in December – there is still a long way for him to go,” said Rodgers, who confirmed Mario Balotelli deemed himself unfit to travel after receiving a knock in training.
“He has got a lot of potential. I believe that potential he can really develop over these next few years at Liverpool.
“Of course, it will be the job of, in particular, his advisors to look at maybe what possibilities might be beyond that.
“The only thing I will say is that he has two-and-a-half years left, he won’t be going anywhere in the summer. That’s for sure.
“They will sit down again with the club and his representatives to hopefully find the solution in the summer.”