Friday 20 April 2018

Paul Hayward: Sturridge's dazzling display quells the doubters ... for now

Klopp will have to decide if he will play Daniel Sturridge
Klopp will have to decide if he will play Daniel Sturridge

Paul Hayward

Frustrating is the gentlest word you would attach to the Daniel Sturridge problem at Liverpool. Agonising and baffling would be the more emotive terms to describe a gifted striker and an inspirational manager not quite hitting it off.

If Liverpool were made for nights like this, Sturridge's talent ought to make him a star in games of this magnitude. This time it certainly did.

Recalled after watching the first leg in Villarreal from the bench, Sturridge made a dazzling start to this second leg, working his feet in tight spaces, cushioning high balls as they dropped from the sky and forcing the error by Bruno that led to Liverpool drawing level in the tie eight minutes into another passion-soaked night at Anfield.

And just when Liverpool needed it, about an hour into this fast, physical encounter, Sturridge supplied a second goal that turned the usual Anfield comeback scenario into one of holding on.

There have been bigger European nights here than this. But this one had its own special resonances. This one followed an actual victory for the Hillsborough Justice campaign, after 27 years of fighting for one, and the mood in the ground expressed that relief.

On a less profound note, the team, were granted an opportunity to add some glory to Jurgen Klopp's first campaign. In the Premier League, Liverpool are in eighth place, 22 points behind champions Leicester City, with 10 defeats in 35 games.

In the FA Cup, they were knocked out by West Ham in the fourth round.

The League Cup was better. Liverpool were beaten finalists (on penalties) against Manchester City. Few would deny that Klopp has improved the club's prospects and lifted spirits.

In a linear world, Sturridge would be someone to build around. Without the injuries, without the introspection, he is a formidable player, good enough at 26 to be pushing Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney harder in the England set-up.

He and Klopp ought to be a dream combination. The way you would write it is: quiet artist with brooding nature and fragile constitution falls under the care of cool young coach with a human touch. Result: goals and glory.

But that is not the film we had been watching, to the point where Sturridge's return for Liverpool's biggest game of the season was a matter of conjecture all week, with Anfield legends speculating again that he will not be here next season.

Logically, Klopp would not be holding him back if he saw him as a straightforward example of a top player who just needed a bit of tender loving care. No, the reservations clearly run deep.

Sturridge had not started any of the club's previous three Europa League games. Klopp preferred Divock Origi against Borussia Dortmund, while Robert Firmino was the chosen one at Villarreal.

In the 3-1 defeat at Swansea, Klopp was forced to explain Sturridge's failure to acknowledge their fans at the end.

Eleven goals in 22 appearances this season is hardly a negligible return, yet a cloud hung over Sturridge as he burst into action here, with Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana also in attacking roles.

"I am someone who wants to play every minute of every match," Sturridge said this week.

"And for people to say, 'Oh, he don't try enough or he doesn't want to be fit', do you honestly believe I'd want to just be sat down picking up wages when I've dreamt of being a professional footballer ever since I can remember? I don't think I'd want to be here now, just to be sitting in my apartment, twiddling my thumbs every day - because pretty much that's what I do."

There was also a lukewarm description of his feelings for Klopp: "For me, our relationship is OK, there are no problems on my part. I never will say a bad word because he's the manager of Liverpool and he's the voice of the club."

The endorsement Sturridge received here was fully repaid when he scored that second goal on 63 minutes and exultation gripped the Kop. Liverpool had been 4-2 down on aggregate against Dortmund but ended up winning 5-4 in one of the great European comebacks. This time they were protecting a 2-1 aggregate lead: a different dynamic.

Klopp knew that crowd noise alone would not send Liverpool through. "The players know great moments and nights don't happen here just because you step off a bus and touch the (This is Anfield) sign on the way to the pitch," he wrote. "Great things happen here when players and supporters make it happen."

Sturridge took that lesson to heart. Maybe now there will be a greater acknowledgment of what he offers to place alongside the understandable doubts about his absences and quiet spells. He showed up here all right.

And showed his class. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport