LONDON, February 27 – As the 22 players walk out onto the pristine Wembley turf for Sunday’s League Cup final between Liverpool and Manchester City, Daniel Sturridge will have more to prove than most.
The injury-plagued Liverpool striker, who will be facing his former club, is fighting to emerge from a mid-career slump that threatens to cost him a place in England’s squad for Euro 2016.
Having made just 11 Premier League starts since August 2014, the 26-year-old has disappeared from view at times and this week he issued an impassioned rebuttal to press reports he was considering his Anfield future.
“I don’t think anyone will understand how much it means to me to play football and I’ll continue to do my best and focus on Liverpool,” he said.
“It has been a difficult time being injured, but it is part of football and now I’m looking forward to the future, of course with Liverpool.”
After becoming frustrated about his lack of progress at first City and then Chelsea, Sturridge did not begin to consistently showcase the staggering ability first glimpsed during his teenage years until he joined Liverpool in January 2013.
An intelligent, technically accomplished and elusive striker, he scored 11 times in his first 16 games and contributed 21 goals to a mesmerising 52-goal partnership with Luis Suarez as Liverpool came agonisingly close to Premier League glory in 2013-14.
Fondly admired by England manager Roy Hodgson, he went to the 2014 World Cup with the number nine shirt on his back and scored in their opening game against Italy.
– Klopp annoyance –
But since then a litany of niggling injuries has restricted him to 28 appearances from a possible 101 for Liverpool and kept him away from the international scene for over 18 months.
He missed the entirety of England’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and with Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy now all above him in the pecking order, a place at the tournament in France is far from secure.
Knee, foot and hamstring problems meant that he did not make his first appearance under Jurgen Klopp until late November and the Liverpool manager’s annoyance showed when he said that Sturridge needed to learn the difference between “what is serious pain or what is only pain”.
When he has played he has proved effective, netting a classy double in a 6-1 League Cup rout of Southampton and being heralded as a “real striker” by Klopp after scoring in the 6-0 Valentine’s Day thrashing of Aston Villa.
“It’s not a surprise that he scores goals, but it surprised me how good he is with the team and his movement,” Klopp said.
“It is good to see him fit and when he hides himself on the pitch he is really difficult to defend against because he is always somewhere and you don’t know his next move.”
The player with the trademark goal celebration wiggle has now started three consecutive games for the first time since March 2015, lining up alongside Brazilians Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino in a new-look front three full of trickery and sleight of hand.
With Sturridge still seeking a trophy after three years at Liverpool, Sunday’s reunion with City represents a golden opportunity for a player whose full potential remains frustratingly untapped.