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May 12, 2013

Sturridge strikes point to exciting future

The stakes may not have been high, but the entertainment and intensity was. Much of that, though, was down to the undisputed man of the match Daniel Sturridge.

Having raised the needle in the game by responding to Fulham taunts about his Chelsea past, the forward then raised the quality with three supreme goals to claim the match ball.

"Daniel was outstanding," his manager, Brendan Rodgers, beamed. "He scored three goals. He could have had maybe six goals. But I think that's his 11th goal in 15 games since joining Liverpool so he has made a great start to his career. If he keeps improving, keeps training well, then I think he will have an outstanding couple of years for us."

Improvement, however, is the big issue for both sides after what was a relatively underwhelming year for the two of them.

Indeed, one of the reasons this game was such a pleasant surprise was because it was so fundamentally inconsequential. After Dimitar Berbatov had plundered a goal to put Fulham in front, Sturridge and Liverpool played like something was really on the line.

Martin Jol, meanwhile, was left to complain about two borderline decisions that preceded the away side's first two goals. Sturridge shrugged aside a foul and then handball at the other end to destroy Aaron Hughes for his opener and then slot home superbly for the strike that finally put Liverpool ahead.

So, although it's difficult to draw too many conclusions from the circumstances, the game did throw up a few talking points.

The first concerns Liverpool's transfer business. After two years of wasting money, and almost a decade in which the likes of Rafa Benitez encountered constant frustration in the market, Rodgers' January signings so far look very shrewd. Aside from the necessary extra edge in the absence of Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard, both Sturridge and Coutinho look to have very distinctively enhanced the squad.

Rodgers certainly thinks so. "Daniel is up there - he will float [like Suarez] but he wants to penetrate in behind," he said. "Coutinho fits in perfectly into what we're trying to do. He's got the temperament but, for me, it was going to be interesting to see how he copes with physicality. He's got that man strength, he is comfortable on the ball, he sees passes, you see his passes."

There was one particular pass, for Sturridge's third, that especially illuminated the game. Coutinho offered a fine through-ball for the forward to instinctively lift over Mark Schwarzer.

Following those two with equally fruitful signings is going to be of the utmost importance. Because that is the other issue for Liverpool to take from this game.

Was a performance like this a proper statement of the future, or just another signal of the team producing when nothing is at stake in a somewhat stagnant present? And, given the rivalry of the two clubs, does Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement at Manchester United represent a proper watershed from which Liverpool can rise or is it just a timely reminder of the gap that has grown between the two teams?

Rodgers, at the least, was making all the right noises about evolution.

"I think we can have an exciting season next year. We can build towards that. We need more depth, we need some more in the summer. If we can do that we will be looking to make a real sustainable challenge next year for the top four."

Where Fulham can go next, though, is an even more difficult question. Even though an improbable last-day goal swing can still actually send them down, they are the quintessential mid-table team.

After the game, Jol carried the air of a man that wasn't entirely satisfied about what he could do next. There has been speculation that he may leave, although he made no mention of his future.

"Sometimes I feel we should count our blessings because we always knew the last seven or eight games could have been a heavy schedule and it was. We are very happy to be on 40 points, but the only difficult thing is we couldn't get a result to be on 46, 47 points.

"Home form has always been good. Last year, Liverpool, we beat them twice, the only disappointing result was against United. We could score out of nothing with [Clint] Dempsey, and this year we have lacked that. With Berbatov we gained somebody to score goals but in other areas we lost goals. That punished us.

"If you lose seven, eight players, of course you need five or six. It is normal. Hopefully you get players in who could be good and strengthen us. If not, you have a problem.

"Last year I really thought we made a big step. If you look at other teams, we played fantastic football, especially after Christmas. That was why we had 52 points. We had to start again so that is why I say on one hand it was disappointing, on the other we have to count our blessing we had 40 by the start of April."

The end of the season, though, provides big questions for both sides. At the least, Sturridge offered three fine answers on the day.

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