England v Montenegro: Can Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge cut it in England's hour of need?
Striker has always been super-confident in his own ability and is showing it at club level. But can he cut it in England's hour of need?
Even Steven Gerrard had to admit that when Daniel Sturridge signed for Liverpool in January he had heard the stories about the baggage that came with the richly talented young footballer. "Since he came to Liverpool I have been surprised with the things I'd read," Gerrard said. "He's been absolutely no problem."
The Sturridge conundrum has existed ever since he emerged in the youth teams at Manchester City around 10 years ago, then just the latest player to roll off that club's impressive production line. A teenage prodigy who started at Coventry City, he starred in the Manchester City team that beat Manchester United in the final of the Nike World Premier Cup in 2004. Two years later he reached the FA Youth Cup final with City, losing to Liverpool. By then he was the standout player of his teenage generation.
English football has been waiting a long time for Sturridge to make good on a prodigious, if occasionally unreliable, talent. After 10 career-changing months at Liverpool, you get the feeling that at Wembley against Montenegro and against Poland on Tuesday could be the occasions when Sturridge comes of age in international football
Roy Hodgson would not say outright that the 24-year-old will start in the first of the two remaining World Cup qualifiers, but he laid out a very compelling case for picking the player. This is, after all, the Premier League's in-form striker, who is playing with the kind of confidence that England managers can scarcely afford to overlook.
When Chelsea's hierarchy decided to sell Sturridge in January they knew that they were taking a risk in letting go an undoubted talent, and an Englishman who, as a home-grown player, was very useful in their Champions League squad lists. But Sturridge's time at Chelsea seemed to have run its course and it was felt that the longer he stayed in west London, underused and none-too-happy about it, the worse the situation would become.
Since joining Liverpool, he has been one of the standout players of 2013. Under Brendan Rodgers, the striker has scored 19 goals in 25 games, as well as his first international goal against San Marino. There was a hat-trick away at Craven Cottage in May. The return of Luis Suarez to the Liverpool side has not slowed his scoring either, with goals at Sunderland and then at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Gerrard said that Sturridge had reacted well to being placed at the heart of the Liverpool team, something he never benefited from at Chelsea. "He [Sturridge] has needed a manager who was prepared to build a team around him, put him as a main striker, the No 9, and we've seen nothing but quality in training and in games," Gerrard said.
"He's even better than I thought he was. I'd seen all his games at Chelsea and a few at City where I'd seen bits and flashes, but his consistency has been brilliant at Liverpool. He's different, razor-sharp, great technique and can score any kind of goal.
"You saw the finish against Crystal Palace at the weekend, some finish from a tight angle. It's all about him being available and fit. If he is, I think he'll do a lot of damage for both club and country. He's confident but not arrogant or flash. He has a lot of belief in his own ability, and I don't blame him for that because he has it."
The confidence was certainly there when Sturridge first arrived at Chelsea just over four years ago, declaring that he was there to challenge the likes of Didier Drogba for a place in the team. He had defiantly run down his contract at City and benefited significantly from that decision when it came to his Chelsea contract. There was an unblinking belief then in his own ability – a belief which jarred at times for one who had so far to go – but now he is finally making good on those promises.
These days, Sturridge does a good deal less talking to the press. His only public words this week have been an interview with the Football Association's in-house media, largely about his strong Christian beliefs and there has been precious little insight from him into the factors that have changed his career in the last few months.
As ever with new strikers in the England team, much depends on how he combines with Wayne Rooney. Rooney, along with Gerrard, remains the permanent fixture who will play whenever he is fit. At Chelsea, Sturridge played more than people give him credit for, 96 appearances, albeit 47 of them as a substitute. His route was blocked by the signing of Fernando Torres, who arrived six months after Sturridge. More often than not the complaint from Sturridge was that when he did start games, it was not as a central striker.
The feeling is that Rooney will operate behind Sturridge in the No 10 role, giving the man from Liverpool the platform to perform as he has done at his club. While Hodgson would not confirm where he anticipated deploying his strikers he certainly suggested that neither of them would be co-opted into a job out on the wing.
"I don't need to play them wide because I have so many other players," Hodgson said. "I try and play players where they're at their best for their club sides. I selected Sturridge and Rooney as strikers. It is different at club level, where you might have injuries. But I have 23 players here and have balanced it out from the start to have players in all positions.
"They're both very good players. They're both all-round players, can receive balls with their back to goal, can turn and run with the ball, beat people, and can score with both feet or headers. They're two excellent, modern-day front players who can perform all the roles you want from the front players."
It is tempting to say that games like these are the kind of matches that Sturridge always envisaged himself playing in, in the days when he grumbled at the lack of opportunities at Chelsea. There is no shortage of confidence in this young man who has been happy to announce himself in the past as the real deal. All that remains to be done now is for him to step on to the stage and prove that to be the case.
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