Why All Eyes Will Be On Raheem Sterling As Liverpool Take on Preston North End

Mark JonesFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2013

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 17:  Raheem Sterling of Liverpool looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Wigan Athletic at Anfield on November 17, 2012 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

Raheem Sterling’s latest garish haircut received plenty of attention when Liverpool’s players first returned for preseason training, but now it is his feet that need to do the talking.

The 18-year-old saw the tail end of his first full season as a Liverpool player cut short due to injury, but now he’s back, ready and raring to go ahead of the Reds’ first preseason game of 2013/14 against Preston North End at Deepdale on Saturday.

This time a year ago, no one knew what to expect from Sterling.

Still just 17, he’d been given three cameo appearances off the bench by manager Kenny Dalglish at the end of the previous campaign, but whether or not he was ready to fully establish himself as a first-team regular remained to be seen.

He scored a fine goal in a preseason match against Bayer Leverkusen at Anfield, but when the real stuff got underway against West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns, he wasn’t even on the bench. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise, as the Reds lost 3-0.

Five days later, though, he started and impressed as Liverpool beat Hearts 1-0 in a Europa League qualifier at Tynecastle. Brendan Rodgers had seen enough to be convinced, and Sterling was pitched into a game against reigning champions Manchester City at Anfield the following Sunday.

He played the full 90 minutes and frequently troubled City’s stars―including his new teammate, Kolo Toure―in the 2-2 draw, and a star was born. Sterling went on to feature in 22 consecutive Premier League games, score his first two senior goals, make his full international debut and sign a new long-term contract in the space of the next five months.

It was a whirlwind start at a club that attracts more media attention than many others, and so there was always going to come a time when Sterling needed to step out of the limelight.

The January additions of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge plus a couple of niggling injuries allowed him to do that, and the winger was barely seen in the second half of Liverpool’s campaign, whilst he was also ruled out of the summer’s European under-21 Championships.

He is too young for this to be regarded as a “defining season” for him, but Sterling will now be desperate to get back to doing what he does best and exciting Liverpool’s fans with his potential.

With the Liverpool Echo reporting that Rodgers has decided to cool interest in Porto winger Christian Atsu and instead focus on developing the likes of Sterling and fellow wide man Jordon Ibe―the 17-year-old who made his senior debut in the last game of last season against Queens Park Rangers―that will surely be seen as a timely boost for the teenagers.

Of course Sterling is in a better position to go on and make a more immediate impact in the first team again, and he’ll be viewing this friendly against Preston as a great chance to lay down a marker.

Atsu may not be arriving, but Iago Aspas has, and with the Spaniard joining the likes of Stewart Downing, Coutinho and Ibe as being able to play in the wide positions competition is sure to be fierce.

Sterling has nothing to prove to anyone, of course, he is already further ahead in his development than any other Liverpool player was at his age for years―perhaps even since the days of Michael Owen―but that won’t stop him wanting to do well and wanting to impress in a match that will take place for the “Shankly Shield,” honouring the legend who spent 16 years as a player at Preston before moving on to manage Liverpool so successfully.

Sterling has some way to go to match the great man’s achievements, but what he did last year was worthy enough of celebration on its own.

Now the task is to go and do it again, and it is a task that begins here.