Brendan Rodgers demands positive Raheem Sterling reaction
Published 04/04/2015 | 02:30
Three days after his admission that he would be flattered to play for Arsenal, Liverpool's Raheem Sterling has an opportunity to flatten the Gunners at the Emirates.
Brendan Rodgers did not hesitate when asked if the youngster would keep his place for today's game, Sterling's faux pas in front of the camera in midweek proving no obstruction to his starting role.
"He will play," said the Liverpool manager. "He will play," he repeated.
Rodgers will not allow the contract impasse to undermine his relationship with the player but Sterling's immediate task is to reassure cynical supporters. A sense of mistrust will pollute his relationship with the Kop in the short term, but a series of match-winning performances will redeem Raheem - particularly if he demonstrates to Arsenal why they should be coveting him.
Rodgers has a challenge dealing with whatever debris needs clearing, but his attitude to Sterling has been paternal since day one. Those expecting the Liverpool manager to admonish the youngster for defying his club to give an unsanctioned interview misjudged the Northern Irishman.
The suspicion lingers that it is those close to Sterling who are seeking to create such a wedge that the winger's position at the club becomes untenable. There is a multi-million pound agent's commission to be earned from securing a transfer, a talented 20-year-old a precious chip in a high-stakes game.
For Rodgers to criticise Sterling publicly would have meant falling into a trap. Instead, he is adopting a policy of conciliation. While Sterling's work ethic remains as impeccable as it has been, he is no danger of being banished, especially as - presuming there is no ridiculous offer to sign him - he will be at Anfield for at least another 12 months.
So, Rodgers is keen for tensions to ease and for concerned Liverpool supporters to see Sterling as an impressionable and misguided youth rather than a scheming agitator.
"I expect Raheem to react very strongly," said Rodgers. "He is a strong character. He's a young boy, still learning on and off the field, but I don't think there is anything derogatory to Liverpool from him.
"I know he loves being here, loves the club and I expect him to perform at a high level. Since he has come in he has trained and worked with me and been phenomenal. I expect him to go there (today) and perform."
This is not a ploy to remind suitors of Sterling's value. Rodgers has no wish to benefit from the proceeds of a sale, regardless of whether the fee is £50m or, as with Luis Suarez a year ago, £75m.
At the heart of his appeal to Sterling to commit to Liverpool is the desire for his emerging squad to mature as a group. The major investment from which Rodgers wants to reap rewards is the time and effort he is putting in to coaching the young players purchased by Fenway Sports Group.
Liverpool's plan is not to become an academy for Premier League or Champions League rivals.
The idea is for the Anfield turf to be replenished with top-class players nurtured on Rodgers' watch.
"Otherwise, you just have to keep rebuilding or restocking your squad," he said. "For a young player, there is no greater place to develop. We want that youthfulness, you do not just want it for another team to come and take it. My focus is to keep this group together and add to it and compete for trophies."
It is a concern that today's opponents will be familiar with. Since his last Premier League title, Arsene Wenger has been accused of being in permanent transition.
Profits were maximised with the sale of world-class players, such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, but as an exciting, attacking team was redeveloped with the proceeds, the title-winning class had moved on.
Until their FA Cup triumph last season, it seemed Arsenal had lost the winning habit. Liverpool are in danger of taking on the role of being heavy in promise but light on silverware. They fell just short in the Premier League last season, were narrowly beaten by Chelsea in this year's League Cup semi-final and, by Rodgers' own admission, need the first trophy of his reign to make the next step of their evolution.
It is hardly a surprise his side have shown inexperience at key moments. The average age of the players for their last two games was just over 24.
In their recent away victory over Southampton and their home win over Manchester City, it was 23 and a half.
"If they all stay together then it can be a real exciting time here," said Rodgers. Given Sterling's state of mind, he may have placed an emphasis on the 'if'.
The evidence is plentiful that the average of the most successful teams - those that win the Premier League or Champions League - is three years older than that of the preferred Liverpool starting XI.
Manchester City won the title last season with a team whose average age was 28. The United team a year earlier also averaged 28; City's in 2012 was 27; United's in 2011 was 27; Chelsea's in 2010 was 29.
"Yes, I think the most successful teams will average 28/29 and ours will be below that," said Rodgers.
"You will see that in the United game where a lack of experience shows. That is why they are here - to learn - and when it is like that it will go that way sometimes."
For Liverpool and Rodgers, keeping Sterling is about more than retaining a promising footballer; it is about preserving and proving the merits of a development policy that will be undermined if summer sales become a habit. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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