Sterling making giant strides
It was an example of footballers' humour, an easy joke that was devoid of malice. As Liverpool prepared to board the team coach for their first league game of the season at West Bromwich Albion, Joe Cole left their Melwood training centre clutching a child's car seat. It was for Raheem Sterling, he quipped.
Two months on, there is no need to strap Sterling in. Brendan Rodgers has unleashed him and, rather than taking baby steps, the ingénu has made giant strides. At 17 years and 317 days, he became Liverpool's second youngest scorer. Only Michael Owen, mocked at Anfield for altogether different reasons, has found the net earlier.
While Cole, pushing 31, was not even in the squad, Sterling has accelerated beyond him, just as he outpaced Reading's Shaun Cummings to secure that rarest of things, a Premier League victory at Anfield. His winner was angled across Reading's Alex McCarthy and taken with precocious composure. A club with 18 league titles now has a 17-year-old scorer, a boy far too young to remember any of them.
Yet Rodgers' emphasis has always been on the future, and it is embodied by Sterling. A faith in youth often involves an element of evangelism and Rodgers is something of a missionary, promoting him ahead of Cole and Stewart Downing, who have a combined total of 90 England caps. His is a team with three teenagers and, while such sides often rely on the senior players make the most telling contributions, on this occasion the youngest member of the side was also the most clinical.
Luis Suarez provided the assist in glorious fashion, a lovely, first-time flick to send Sterling sprinting clear. "It was a wonderful finish," Rodgers said before providing the tactical explanation of how to get a winger on the scoresheet.
"It's a part of the game we have been working on," he said. "Those players on the outside, the (No.) 7 and the 11, we are trying to get them on the inside to get into those positions and break the line of the back four. All credit to him. He has got to identify the minute to go inside." In short, penetration was allied with pace; Sterling making a diagonal burst into the penalty area.
He was the reason why, for once, dominance did not go unrewarded. "We had 19 shots on goal and need to improve our finishing which is an ongoing theme," Rodgers said; that this was just a third home league win of 2012 is attributable, to a large degree, to erratic finishing.
In that, as in much else, Luis Suarez is the personification of Liverpool. He also had the opportunities to score a hat-trick and an audacious chip, that just cleared the crossbar, was both the hardest and the best of his many efforts. "He kept getting into good positions and will be disappointed he didn't score," his manager said. "Going forward we will want to get more players who take the load off him."
It is the priority in the January transfer window, but it was a more immediate issue. Suarez started as the only member of the front three with a first-team goal to his name. Sterling remedied that while Suso, fresh from signing a new long-term contract, was unlikely to: the Spaniard was a stranger to the penalty area at times. He can appear more midfielder than winger.
Sterling gravitates to the flank more often; the key was persuading him to jink infield more often. In the process, he earned Liverpool three points in the Premier League at Anfield for the first time since May. "It has been a long time coming," said Rodgers, who denied this constituted revenge.
He was dismissed by Reading in December 2009, and the away fans launched into an early chorus of "we sacked your manager." Rodgers had already won promotion at Reading's expense, with Swansea in the 2011 play-off final, and has invariably praised his old employers since his departure.
"There is no special satisfaction," he said. "It is a fantastic club with wonderful people. It was just the wrong time for me." Reading, he insisted, "will be fine", though they are yet to win in the Premier League this season. "It sometimes takes seven, eight or 10 games to get your bearings," he said. It is true, but it was a sign of Sterling's talent that while the promoted Royals are taking time to adjust, he has slotted in seamlessly. The child's seat is not required for the teenager who steered Liverpool up the table.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Raheem Sterling. The rise and rise of Sterling continues. Included in an England squad (albeit without taking the field) after a mere two league starts, he now looks established in the Liverpool side before his 18th birthday. Suarez was the only other candidate for man of the match but his wasteful finishing counted against him. Otherwise he was, as Rodgers said, "terrific."
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: A home win was vital before it became a psychological issue but Liverpool's profligacy could have been costly: Brad Jones, deputising for the injured Pepe Reina, made a fine save to deny Jobi McAnuff an equaliser. One switch Rodgers made was instructive: introducing Jose Enrique on the left wing may have been intended to help shore them up but the combination of two full-backs on that flank almost reaped a dividend when he and Glen Johnson set Suarez up for a superb chance.
READING VERDICT: "We have got to start the game at 3 o'clock," McDermott said. "But in the second half, I honestly thought we were going to get something." On the balance of chances, however, they did not deserve to. McAnuff was their greatest threat but right-back Shaun Cummings struggled. It was not just the fact Sterling escaped him for the goal; it was the way the 17-year-old was granted too much space before and after that ought to worry Reading.