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5 key matches for Liverpool

Liverpool
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 By Tony Evans

Will Daniel Sturridge ever become Liverpool's star in post-Gerrard era?

Daniel Sturridge has played just three league games this season as injuries continue to derail his Liverpool career.

Where are the big names on the Liverpool team-sheet? The game-changers, the shirt-sellers, the crowd-pullers, the superstars?

You couldn't find any in the line-up against Exeter City in the FA Cup at the weekend, but that is easily explained with a glance at manager Jurgen Klopp's injury list. The problem at Anfield is that there will be barely any more stardust in the teams that play Arsenal on Wednesday and Manchester United on Sunday.

The absence of Philippe Coutinho only underlines the dearth of talent. There will be a dash of potential (Jordon Ibe), lashings of honest but dull application (James Milner) and even a helping of comic relief (the goalkeepers). But what's missing is an icon, a showman who delivers excitement and who other players and supporters look toward at moments of crisis. Box-office left the building when Steven Gerrard departed for Hollywood and the Los Angeles Galaxy last summer.

Daniel Sturridge was supposed to fill the vacuum. The striker has the touch, talent and nose for goal to transform games, win Golden Boots and crash Ballon d'Or shortlists. Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the club's owners, envisioned a new era built on Sturridge's productivity on the pitch and marketability off it. They have been supportive and understanding over the forward's injury problems. Their patience has not been rewarded.

Would Liverpool sell the 26-year-old Sturridge? It's hard to see Liverpool parting with a man who has scored 44 goals in 72 games for the club. Then again, it's even harder to see any rivals stump up a premium price tag -- and the wage bill that accompanies it -- for a man who has only started three times in the league this season.

The American owners love Sturridge's raw talent but they also regard him highly in other ways. They gush about his intelligence and if the choice to hand out the captain's armband resided in Boston, the striker would have been wearing it even when Gerrard was still at Anfield. In their minds, Sturridge was the "franchise player."

But even FSG's forbearance has been tested by the player's long absences.

The owners have gone to great lengths to get to the bottom of his physical problems and some of America's best specialists and surgeons have worked on healing Sturridge. Others think the answer lies within the player himself. Former manager Brendan Rodgers, who pulled the plug on FSG's first attempt to sign Sturridge in August 2012, defended himself against the ire of the owners by arguing that the striker, while talented, had "underlying issues". 

Sturridge has been open about his battles to remain fit. He has talked about having a tendency to fast-twitch muscle injuries as a result of his background -- "Caribbean vibes," as he put it

There is plenty of unsympathetic conjecture, too, among Liverpool fans

His prolonged absence has other negative effects. Until Milner arrived at Liverpool last summer, Sturridge was the club's highest-paid player. Raheem Sterling wanted something close to parity with the top wage earner. Part of the youngster's argument was that he was actually playing, unlike his injured teammate. Although that resentment played only a tiny part in the breakdown of relations between Sterling and the club, Anfield's negotiators would have been in a much stronger position to rebuff Sterling's grievances if Sturridge was a regular in the team and banging in goals.

It is clear that the striker's body needs to be somewhere near peak condition for him to produce his best performances. Trying to strong-arm him into playing is counterproductive. He is too strong-minded for that and, anyway, the physical responses caused by nerves and fear of injury can make aggravating a problem more likely.

Klopp has now inherited the "underlying issues" Rodgers talked about. The German's exasperation is becoming clearer by the week. His eyes have been opened about the paucity of the squad and the one proven weapon bequeathed to Klopp appears constantly decommissioned.

It increasingly looks like medical science will not solve the Sturridge conundrum. Somehow, player and club need to work out a way of managing the forward's problems that may not be entirely satisfactory for both but produces enough success to balance the negative aspects of the situation.

Liverpool are a big club, but big clubs need big players. There is no Gerrard, no Luis Suarez, no Fernando Torres, no Michael Owen, no Robbie Fowler ... the list of household names and fan favourites goes back in an almost unbroken line all the way to the 1950s. Sturridge is the only Anfield resident who could continue the tradition. If he does, the rewards for player and team will be enormous. FSG are right: He has all the tools in the toolbox to be a superstar. Unfortunately Rodgers might be correct, too. In the end it may come down to whether Sturridge can -- or wants to -- play through pain.

Klopp's arrival has brought this to a head. Sturridge is approaching a crossroads. The next five months could be the most crucial of his career.

Man United should consider winning ugly

There's a modern myth that Manchester United have to play attractive football. It was created by Sir Alex Ferguson: "We can't do it like Liverpool," he said, implying his great rivals ground out their trophies. "We have to do it in style."

It was pretty rich coming from the Scot, who could win ugly with the best of them. This was a man who was not shy of sending up his centre-backs in the dying minutes of games and using agricultural long balls to attempt to rescue matches. It often worked.

There's ugly, though, and there's Louis van Gaal's United. They're not gruesome, just plain in a way that hurts to watch. There is no spark, no intelligence about United. A bit of ugliness might improve them. They are crying out for pace, directness and perhaps a little bit of the anger that fueled Ferguson's teams. This lot are offensively dull. Manchester United should never be this ordinary.

Arsenal hit a crucial stretch
Arsenal's next three Premier League matches: Liverpool, away; Stoke City, away; and Chelsea, home. A title-bound team would fancy nine points from these fixtures, seven at least. My guess? Four. It is, though, the perfect opportunity for Mesut Ozil to sew up the player of the year awards and, if he does, Arsene Wenger will have another title to boast about.

Aston Villa look doomed
Teams that found their level this weekend: Aston Villa. They're closer than League Two's Wycombe Wanderers than they are to the Premier League's top 10. Manager Remi Garde looked lost at Adams Park. He needs to find answers quickly.

Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.

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