World Cup offers perfect stage for dazzling Sterling
Raheem Sterling's road to the top is running from East Anglia to the whole of Anglia to Europe and the world. In this 11th straight league win for Liverpool, he was right at the core of stars who look like carrying the league title to Anfield for the first time in 24 years.
"Arguably the best young player in Europe," was Brendan Rodgers' summary after Sterling had scored two and made one in a 3-2 victory over Norwich. This 19-year-old with a Wembley tattoo will also improve England's chances of performing creditably in Brazil this summer.
Note the caution in that sentence. After decades in the wilderness, it is enough for England to find footballers who can play the game, not just the position. All season, Sterling has added layers to his repertoire, drifting inside to play at the point of a diamond and evolving into the hallowed No 10 role.
"He's always had the talent but I've been really pleased with his maturity," Rodgers said. "We've tried to play him in different positions to improve his intelligence. Today he was at the tip of the diamond, he was predatory and comfortable in possession. But when he had to go wider he switched as well, which shows how intelligent he is as a footballer. He's got that belief he can be a really good player and he's really humble."
Chelsea and Manchester City will turn pale to see Rodgers' men survive a late onslaught by Norwich. Banners hung over the Melwood training ground walls and a growing Messianic sense around Rodgers' work are acquiring their own romantic force. Chelsea lose at home to Sunderland and end Jose Mourinho's impregnability at Stamford Bridge. City draw with the same relegation-threatened opponents at home. Liverpool, on the other hand, travel to Carrow Road inspired by the words of Margaret Aspinall, the Hillsborough campaigner, and parade their vibrant football while also hanging on to a win under pressure.
Those who smell fate in Liverpool's title challenge are hardly likely to be dissuaded by Luis Suarez becoming the first Liverpool player since Ian Rush in 1986-'87 to reach 30 league goals – or by Sterling's individual brilliance. Traditionally young English players have been handed a role and told to stick to it. Over-specialisation (or pigeonholing) is an English curse. England coach Roy Hodgson remarked the other day that Adam Lallana's position at Southampton is tricky to define. He meant it as a compliment.
Equally, Sterling has refused to be cast as a zippy winger and has grown into the job of midfield creator, flipping passes round corners, striking cross-field balls and dribbling through central areas with his head raised to the possibilities.
With Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge already slashing and burning for Liverpool, it seems almost a luxury to have Sterling performing some of the work of Philippe Coutinho, who is Rodgers' regular No 10.
Liverpool's style of play is undeniably infectious. But without the weight of talent to swing games in tight areas, Rodgers would be a fine coach with a good idea but no realistic hope of squeezing past Chelsea or City. The two go together, and Rodgers deserves the credit for settling Suarez down, saving Sturridge from two false starts – at City and Chelsea – and liberating the talent in Sterling, whose life away from the pitch has reflected some of the stresses of growing up without silver-spoon-in-mouth.
The challenge for Rodgers was to implant the thought that a great career lay ahead of him if he could channel all his thoughts into his profession.
The glint of the Premier League pot has certainly caught his eye. Only four minutes had passed here before Sterling floated across the Norwich back four and slapped a shot that deceived John Ruddy. Seven minutes later, he attacked down the flank and curled a cross behind Michael Turner for Suarez to reach his landmark.
In the second half, after Gary Hooper had put the squeeze on Liverpool by exploiting a Simon Mignolet error, Sterling collected the ball in his own half and swayed through the Norwich midfield. Sweeping into the penalty box, he directed a deflected clip over Ruddy to put Liverpool 3-1 up.
Sterling is alive to space and angles. Shooting down wings and befuddling full-backs was never going to satisfy his wish to be central to the action. Serendipity took him to Liverpool and into Rodgers' care. Under Rodgers, the champions-elect believe in fluidity, pace and enterprise. And with England there is a shift in favour of the kind of free-flowing talents Sterling expresses.
With this march back to the top, Liverpool have married the potential of their attacking players with a style that allows ambition to thrive.
Blowing the whole thing along is huge gusts of emotion, which Rodgers has put to good use. There is a special pleasure in seeing a young home-grown player escape the limits the system imposes, helped by a manager who regards himself as facilitator and creator. Whatever the tribal politics, no one can doubt the artistic merit of Liverpool's play. With his two goals, Sterling staked his claim to be both a star and a leader in a team of destiny. (© Daily Telegraph, London)