Sterling getting his chance to shine
Fitness permitting, Luis Suarez will come up against five of his club mates when Uruguay take on England on Thursday in Sao Paolo. The most intriguing aspect of this Group D fixture is the potential shootout between the Premier League's two leading goal scorers: Suarez and his Liverpool teammate, Daniel Sturridge.
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The pair have gone into battle side by side many times for Liverpool, but on this occasion "the SAS" will be going head to head against each other in what looks like a "lose and go home" clash after both nations were defeated in their opening games.
Both carry the goal-scoring burden of a nation on their shoulders, but before his recent injury scare Suarez would have been the one expected to make the biggest impact in Brazil. The landscape has changed somewhat since Suarez was forced to undergo pre-tournament knee surgery, and it's the other half of Anfield's dynamic duo who may now be set to take centre stage.
Sturridge hasn't exactly played second fiddle to the Uruguayan, but he is generally regarded as the junior partner to the reigning FWA and PFA Player of the Year. There's no shame in that -- only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would be able to claim seniority over the Uruguayan at this moment -- but this tournament represents a chance for Sturridge to be the main man in his own right and enhance his own standing in the game.
He got off to the best possible start against Italy when he converted a Wayne Rooney cross to cancel out Claudio Marchisio's opener minutes earlier. England lost the game, but on a personal note, it was a successful evening for Sturridge, and he will be flying going into the Uruguay game.
In contrast, Suarez was forced to watch in frustration from the substitutes bench as his beloved Uruguay were taken to the cleaners by Costa Rica in a shock upset. The reigning Copa America champions were dreadful, and even a fully fit Suarez may not be enough to transform their fortunes based on that performance. Then again, he just might. He is a world-class footballer at the peak of his powers, after all. Much will depend on how well that knee has recovered, but for Uruguay to stand any chance, Suarez will surely have to start and he'll certainly have to play well.
England, on the other hand, performed reasonably well in that defeat to the Italians, with the Liverpool contingent heavily involved and enjoying mixed fortunes. Jordan Henderson was efficient and energetic under difficult circumstances as Italy packed the middle of the field. Steven Gerrard had a steady game and was unfortunate not to win a penalty after former teammate Gabriel Paletta clumsily barged him over in the box.
The less said about Glen Johnson's display, the better, though. Generally, international coaches want their players to take their club form onto the international stage, but unfortunately for England coach Roy Hodgson, it looks like Johnson has done the opposite.
While Sturridge scored and looked dangerous throughout until he was forced off with a knock late on, it was clubmate Raheem Sterling who was by far England's most impressive performer. At least he was until Hodgson inexplicably marooned him out on the right touchline away from the action.
The performance of Sterling may have surprised many (Incredibly, according to Google, the most commonly searched question in the UK during the England-Italy game was, "Who does Raheem Sterling play for?), but it will not have come as a shock to Liverpool fans who have witnessed first-hand the remarkable progression of the 19-year-old in 2014. With much of the focus on "the big two" ahead of Thursday's game, could the young upstart step forward and steal the limelight from both? It wouldn't be the first time.
Suarez and Sturridge rightly earned most of the plaudits for Liverpool's surprise second-place showing in the Premier league, but it has slipped under the radar somewhat that from January onward Sterling was every bit as impressive as his more illustrious colleagues. In fact, the youngster often outshone "the SAS" to the extent that some even suggested another "S" should be added to the moniker. "The SASAS" doesn't quite work though, does it?
Based on the past six months Sterling does not have to take a back seat to Suarez and Sturridge anymore, at least not in terms of ability and level of performance. He can't match them for goal-scoring yet, but he's got plenty of time on his side to hone those skills.
Liverpool's much-vaunted front two is actually a front three now thanks to the impact made by Sterling in the second half of last season. Just look at what he did in big games, for instance. He was outstanding in two thumping wins over Spurs, scored twice in the rout against Arsenal, added another cracker against Manchester City and bagged a brace at Carrow Road when the Reds needed someone to step up in the absence of the injured Sturridge (he also put one on a plate for Suarez that day too).
Suarez was beginning to run out of steam with the finish line approaching and Sturridge was battling some nagging injuries that disrupted his form in the run-in. Sterling, in contrast, was fresh, having not been used much in the opening months of the campaign, and that freshness is still apparent now, as the Italians will no doubt testify.
It's worth considering too that neither Suarez nor Sturridge were performing to the level Sterling currently is when they were his age, and perhaps in time Sterling will eventually go on to eclipse them both? That won't happen on Thursday of course, regardless of how well he performs.
Sterling's tender age and lack of experience rightly make him third in the pecking order of Anfield attackers now and for the foreseeable future, and Suarez and Sturridge will deservedly take top billing in Sao Paulo. It's entirely possible, however, that when the final whistle blows on Thursday, Raheem Sterling will be the name on everybody's lips.
The status of Suarez as the "alpha male" in Liverpool's forward line isn't under threat just yet, but this week represents an opportunity for others in the pack to step out of the shadows and outshine "the big dog" on the world's biggest stage.
I can't wait; in fact, this is the most I've looked forward to any England game in a long, long time. May the best Red win!