For both club and country, Liverpool starlet Raheem Sterling seems to be peaking at just the right time. There always seems to be one wildcard that plays their way late into the reckoning before an international tournament. But in the case of Sterling, his form in the current calendar year surely makes the player a shoo-in for Roy Hodgson’s starting eleven, let alone the squad.
On Sunday, the youngster contributed two massive goals in a crucial match-winning display at Carrow Road. The weekend before, Sterling confidently opened the scoring after a drop of the shoulder in Liverpool’s biggest game of the season to date. Despite only being nineteen, this starlet has positively thrived under the pressure of maintaining Liverpool’s unexpected title tilt.
Fear. It is a characteristic that tends to dominate the psyche of English players at international tournaments. Fabio Capello turned to Jermain Defoe in South Africa as he recognised the former Tottenham striker wasn’t shackled by fear and was rewarded with that all-important goal against Slovenia. Surely Hodgson must do the same with Sterling in Brazil this summer?
After the victory at Carrow Road, Brendan Rodgers labelled the player as “arguably the best young player in European football at the moment.” High praise indeed from a manager that traditionally attempts to deflate expectations and had warned Sterling over believing he had “made it” not so long ago.
What is perhaps most exciting for Liverpool and England fans is the starlet’s development in a number of roles. Despite his pace and ability to beat a man, Rodgers has refused to pigeonhole the player as a one dimensional winger and has recently deployed him at the tip of a midfield diamond. Not a classic number ten, Sterling’s knack of turning on a sixpence and aggressively driving at defences has reaped rewards for Liverpool’s prolific attack.
The former Queens Park Rangers’ trainee initially broke on to the scene in Rodgers’ first season in charge but the youngster still appeared too lightweight and devoid of a killer instinct.
Having already fathered a child (yes, just one), Rodgers publicly spoke of his concerns for the starlet’s personal life. The manager warned Sterling over believing he had already “made it” and stressed the need for the player to continue working hard at his all-round game.
A spell out of the first-team followed, an absence which team-mate Glen Johnson understandably believes has benefited the youngster. Before the home encounter with Norwich at the beginning of December, Sterling had struck just once in the Premier League. Since that match, the starlet has found the net on a further nine occasions.
Beyond the statistics however, Sterling is evidently exuding a confidence and maturity which belies his age. Despite this inexperience, the youngster’s role in a free-flowing Liverpool side should make him a certainty in Hodgson’s summer plans.
Injury permitting, Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney seem set to be selected as England’s number nine and ten respectively. Nominated for the PFA Player of the Year award, Adam Lallana has impressed consistently for club and country to almost be considered another certainty in Hodgson’s eleven. That leaves one spot in England’s probable attacking quartet.
Long-term injuries to Jay Rodriguez and Theo Walcott have unfortunately ruled them out of the reckoning. Andros Townsend burst on to the international scene back in October and impressed with his aggressive direct approach. But injury and a lack of playing time means that it is unlikely that the Tottenham man will start in Brazil. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain impressed upon his return to the Arsenal set-up but has since faded somewhat along with the Gunners’ title ambitions.
Despite their greater experience, James Milner and Ashley Young have featured far too sporadically to warrant a starting position in the summer. Adam Johnson has impressed in recent months but for one reason or another has been unable to convince Hodgson that he is worthy of a recall.
It could be considered a risk to turn to a player with such little international experience on the biggest footballing stage of them all. But with fellow Liverpool stars Steven Gerrard, Johnson and Sturridge all likely to be heavily involved, a measure of continuity will surely aid the transition.
An eighteen year old Wayne Rooney shone in 2004 at the European Championships. Whilst it would obviously be wrong to expect the Liverpool starlet to make the same impact this summer, he does possess a strikingly similar maturity to Rooney at that point of his career.
A spot has opened up in Hodgson’s plans and it would seem foolish for anyone other than Sterling to fill that void. The starlet may only have two England caps to date but as he has demonstrated in Liverpool’s unlikely charge for the title, he is ready and able to handle the pressure of starting in Brazil.