Back on the Anfield turf following five months on the sidelines, Daniel Sturridge excelled on his return to Liverpool’s match day squad. Joining the game in the 68th minute, replacing Serbian winger Lazar Markovic with Liverpool already one goal ahead of opponents West Ham, it took Sturridge under fifteen minutes to stamp his authority on the game.
Pundits spoke of their expectation that the Reds’ forward might require some time to shake off the rust accrued on his time away from the side. Just twelve minutes later, Sturridge put paid to any reservations over his readiness when he darted into the box having helped the ball on to Philippe Coutinho from a deeper position. Picked out expertly by the return from the young Brazilian, Sturridge deftly took the ball in stride, created space for himself and slotted the ball past Adrian.
On the balance of play, the game was well suited for Sturridge’s return, with Liverpool on the front foot from the first whistle, creating opportunities from the midfield and Raheem Sterling, filling in up front, finding ample room to exert his pace behind West Ham’s high back line. For all his pace, Sterling’s opener came from a well-worked technical move. Hovering on the outside of the penalty area as left back Alberto Moreno surged forwards on the flank, Sterling chested the ball from the Spaniard back to the nearby Coutinho. Taking the ball in stride despite a slight deflection off Hammers centre back Winston Reid, Coutinho stroked the ball back towards the run of Sterling, who found the back of the net. Already comfortable, dominating possession and creating the majority of the game’s efforts on goal, Liverpool only looked like adding to their lead when a mighty roar of support from the Anfield faithful heralded the forthcoming introduction of Sturridge.
His influence on the game was immediate, linking well with both Coutinho and Sterling, who was shifted back into the more familiar position at the peak of the midfield to accommodate Sturridge as a lone striker, and demonstrating a technical sharpness that belied his long absence. Finding the net with the second of his three attempts on goal – he first found the side netting from a narrow angle after some crafty footwork, while putting a rebound wide after an effort from Jordon Ibe, recently recalled from his highly successful loan at Derby, was palmed away by the Hammers keeper – a one in three conversion rate in his first game back has whetted the appetites of Liverpool fans who have awaited his return with anticipation.
The effectiveness of Sturridge’s return stands as testament to the merits of Liverpool’s patient approach to his recovery. Often fans and managers are keen to see players back in the starting eleven as soon as possible, though their longevity is perhaps better served by more time dedicated to their recuperation. The opposite might be said of Sturridge’s case, with Liverpool allowing the player to fully recover, ensuring and partially rebuilding his fitness in training, yielding the productive results seen in his comeback performance.
The implications of Sturridge’s return mark, more than simply a potential upturn in Liverpool’s fortunes, an intriguing culmination to the Premier League season. Already beginning to find a run of form, the points that might be gained by a Liverpool side bolstered by Sturridge’s contribution of goals make for a close run chase for the top four. With unexpected competition from the likes of Southampton, alongside the relative upswing for Manchester United and Tottenham from last season, the league itself benefits from Sturridge’s impact on Liverpool, creating a close race that promises a truly exciting and unpredictable run in.
In the aftermath of Sturridge’s encouraging return, the implications for both Liverpool and the league in general promise an exciting race for the Champions League spots.
How might Sturridge spur Liverpool on in their pursuit of the top four?