Sturridge return timely as Suarez reunion looms

Posted by Kristian Walsh

When a team has spent five years out of the Premier League's top four, an 11-day break of league competition when nestled inside it will always be welcome.

Maybe nestled isn't the word. Liverpool have sat upon, teetered over and cherished fourth place, which they took possession of after their 2-0 victory over Hull on New Year's Day.

They are one point ahead of Everton and two in front of Tottenham. With both teams at home to sides in the bottom six, Liverpool could be sixth when they kickoff at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday.

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Insert generalised, unspecified observations about mentality and character here. To beat Stoke at a stadium they have never won at in the Premier League would be a sign of something -- Champions League contenders, champions, Masters of the Universe -- while the reclaiming of fourth place would be a message, a warning, a big fat smoke signal, to the rest of the league.

All that is true, sort of. But any victory at Stoke, irrespective of previous troubles there, would be impressive this season given Mark Hughes has lost only once there (peculiarly to Norwich) and managed five points from Manchester City, Chelsea and Everton.

A victory at Stoke will not necessarily be the result of hours with club psychiatrist Dr. Steve Peters or a training session consisting of solely bayoneting a sandbag with Stoke defender Robert Huth's face attached to it. Instead, victory would come from Liverpool being a much better football team than their opposition.

For all the talk of mentality, and it is unquestionably important, there is also a battle to be won with feet instead of minds. Liverpool have a very good first 11, one that has been stretched through injury but is nevertheless capable of finishing in the top four. There are questions about the collective functioning of the team -- the midfield axis of Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva and the 20 potential centre-back partnerships, in particular -- but individually, they are comfortably better than two-thirds of the league.

They have spent a fair portion of the season showing that. Luis Suarez has obviously been the protagonist of everything good about Liverpool, but other players have also presented evidence that they're really good at the football: Jordan Henderson has become more creative, with flicks and tricks aplenty; Raheem Sterling, age 19, has already managed a career renaissance with a newfound willingness to leave fullbacks in his rearview mirror; Joe Allen, though injured now, had become better on and off the ball.

After grounding and pounding against Hull and Oldham, Liverpool will be keen to rediscover that swagger at some point this month. It is not a case of momentum, if such a thing truly exists, but rather recognition that good football will ultimately be rewarded and was throughout the first half of the season. There will be the necessity of pragmatism and of 2-0 scorelines at times, and that may be needed against Stoke, but Liverpool must also remember what brought them into the conversation -- to use Brendan Rodgers' language -- to begin with.

The imminent return of one of their better players, Daniel Sturridge, should help. He belongs in the same bracket with Henderson, Sterling and Allen -- young players who have visibly improved under Rodgers' guidance and amply supported the wonder of Suarez. Indeed, given his early-season scoring performances, Sturridge may be that slight class above; goals against Manchester United and Everton highlight him as a player who scores important goals and wins important points for his side.

His return, potentially beginning with an appearance against Stoke, should be met with widespread elation then, maybe even a hearty fist pump from the Kop or a gentle, disconcerting smile from Rodgers. In the quest to get loads of good players playing together and producing good football, Sturridge's addition is key.

Things are never that simple. In his absence, Liverpool played the best football of the season with Suarez as the focal point of attack, mainly accompanied by Henderson, Sterling and Philippe Coutinho buzzing nearby. Suarez scored 10 goals in four games in December and produced excellent performances throughout. On the first day of 2014, he reached 20 league goals with a free kick barely believable.

Suarez and Sturridge are capable of playing together; games against Sunderland, Crystal Palace and most notably West Bromwich Albion demonstrated that. The opposition knew it was to be hurt; it was just a matter of how. Sometimes, the pace of Sturridge would alarm defenders, who scuttled back like crabs in quicksand in an attempt to catch him. On other occasions, Suarez's trickery, tenacity and sheer brilliance would wreck the opposition, leaving it in a regretful heap. Even when everything seemed under control, Sturridge would chip a goalkeeper hardly off his line or Suarez would place a header into the top corner from 20 yards out.

But then you think of Suarez, the lone wolf, a player who is everywhere yet somehow finds himself free in the penalty area when needed. He creates, he scores, and he can do it on his own. There is a theory that the return of Sturridge may somehow hamper that, as if taking responsibility away from Suarez is taking Suarez away from Liverpool.

For Liverpool, there is only one way to find out. When fully fit, Sturridge must play. Not using him when fully fit is unthinkable, because he is a player who has thrived with responsibility. At Anfield, he feels belonged, important; he is a player who is a perfect example of what trust and time on the pitch can do. He could be shifted wide, maybe in place of Coutinho or Sterling, but that would contradict how he scored so many goals at the start of the season. Similarly, playing Suarez and Sturridge up front together could result in 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, but then a player like Coutinho, Henderson or Sterling could miss out.

But panic is blind. Similar so-called dilemmas and questions arose when Suarez was set to return from his ban at Sunderland. Then it was Sturridge who was in-form and potentially hampered by Suarez. Suarez came back, Sturridge kept on scoring, and Suarez scored even more.

Suarez is one of the best players in the world, and he should not sacrifice a drop of sweat toward anything other than being who he is and doing what he is doing. But the luxury for Liverpool is that he does not necessarily have to. He and Sturridge can coexist and coerce Liverpool to remain in the top four. It’s for the rest of the team to revolve around that.

Sturridge's return could not be timed better for Liverpool after two defeats, albeit at Manchester City and Chelsea, as well as two industrious 2-0 wins. He is a strong character and an intelligent player on and off the pitch. But most importantly, he is another good player to play with their other good players.

Suarez may not need help, but he's going to get it from one of the league's most improved players anyway. It is time for Liverpool to rediscover what has put them within six points of the top as the second half of the season begins. The reunion of Suarez and Sturridge, the prancer and the dancer, will no doubt do that.

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