By Kevin Koczwara
Kolo Toure once had a dream of playing for a professional team. Then he was plucked by Arsene Wenger from ASEC Mimosas of the Ivorian Premier Division and became an “Invincible”, and finally one of the highly priced (£16 million) defenders that Money-Bags-Manchester City wanted to begin its “revolution” with. Now, he’s just one of the first defenders in the Premier League to be tortured by young Raheem Sterling, Liverpool’s 17-year-old boy-wonder/winger with so much promise that it’s easy to forget how these stories of talent and early emergence can end if they aren’t well-monitored and brought back to reality (here’s looking at you Bojan Krkic).
One thing for sure is that Liverpool’s new boss Brendan Rodgers isn’t letting the young man get away with anything in training, which is precisely why we’re seeing Sterling show what so many people saw in him before he scored five goals in a reserve team game.
Last year, Kenny Dalglish gave Sterling his senior debut and brought him along for trips to Europa League games. But there was something missing in the young player and Dalglish refused to put him in the limelight even though he knew there was so much talent. Instead, Dalglish eased the player into games — giving him three substitute appearances in late-season games when a chance at fourth place had long passed as a pipe-dream.
Since then, there were rumors that the former Queens Park Rangers player wanted to go out on loan in search of more playing time. But he stuck it out at Melwood and Harvard this summer and earned his way into Rodgers plans for this season. He came on for Joe Cole in the 23rd minute in an away game at Gomel after the former England international pulled up on his hamstring. It was a blessing of fate from Liverpool’s manager in the young-winger. The Europa League may not be the big-cheese in European football, but it’s still a competition teams take seriously, especially for teams like Gomel where beating Liverpool would be the highlight of the season. To be put on as the first substitute in a place like Belarus was a statement that Sterling is here for the long-haul and a player making waves in Rodgers’ eyes.
A week later Sterling scored his first goal for the senior team against Bundesliga side Bayern Leverkusen at Anfield. The game was a friendly, but Sterling showed he belonged on the big-stage. He ran at defenders, linked well and showed great work tracking back and covering – something not often seen in young starlets.
His play and work ethic got him his first start in European play when Liverpool traveled to Scotland to take on Hearts in the Europa League on Thursday, August 23. Sterling took the field with his fellow fringe players and showed that he belonged higher-up the pecking order. His performance was more veteran like than his naive teammates who struggled to get a positive result away from Anfield — Liverpool won, 1-0.
Sterling’s performance against Hearts and his hard work during the offseason made it easy for Rodgers to plug him in the starting XI against last season’s league champions, Manchester City, on Sunday. The move paid off for Liverpool and Rodgers as Sterling tormented Toure — playing as the left-sided defender in a back three — while still being able to recover and help Glen Johnson — playing out of position as a left back — in his defensive duties.
“It was an easy decision [to start him],” Rodgers told the media after the 2-2 draw with City. “I said when I first came here, I won’t judge people on their status or what they’ve done, it’s about what I see now in front of me, and he’s a young player who’s improved every single day since I came in here.”
Sterling’s pace and trickery caused Toure nightmares, and through the early minutes of the game the 17-year-old was Liverpool’s only bright-spot, as he was against Hearts in the midweek Europa League game. As the game wore on, Sterling faded out into the background of a helter-skelter match that ended in a 2-2 draw after a moment of brilliance from Luis Suarez and a moment of mental diarrhea from Martin Skrtel.
But that isn’t to take away from Sterling. He has come a long way from a mythical player lingering in the background looking for his chance to a player on the rise. He’s come a long way from the kid being yelled at in the preseason (see video above) to a player who has taken control of his destiny.
“[Sterling] was a player who played on his own, in the one v one. You look at him now, playing for the team, his tactical understanding playing against a really experienced player [Toure],” Rodgers continued after the game. “He was blocking the line of pass, he was pressing at the right time, he was coming back to block the lines inside.For a 17-year-old, playing against the champions, I thought his performance was fantastic.”
But the performance was just one game. Players are expected to play to their best for full seasons. Glimpses are great, but for the past few seasons Liverpool has seen glimpses of what this team can be, but it’s never materialized into anything remotely what has been expected. There is plenty of growing for Sterling to do. He has time on his side, right now, but too often has the hype over-weighed the product. Too often have young, bright and promising players become disappointments (here’s looking at you Stephen Ireland).
“He has got a long way to go, because he has got to be consistent, and that’s something I’ll keep a close eye on.”
For Liverpool, it’s a good thing Rodgers has his eye on Sterling, because in a few short months, the youngster has gone from the fringes to the spotlight. Now the question is can he stay cool under all the heat?