• Striker finally making his mark at Stamford Bridge
• Loan spell at Bolton paves way into England reckoning
Daniel Sturridge has acknowledged that regular football would always sharpen his fitness. He would also concede that his all-round form inevitably benefits from a starting place at Chelsea. Yet it is the improvement in his state of mind that is setting the youngster apart. "When I was here before I was always upset, always down because I wasn't playing," said the striker. "I didn't love football the way Ido now."
At 22 and two years into his career at the club Sturridge is finally making a prolonged impact. Chelsea's most consistent performer in pre-season may still feel like a revelation in the ranks but the benefits of his six months at Bolton Wanderers last term are clear and defined. In the past, when he was kicking his heels on the fringes, the striker's innate self-confidence felt inappropriate, bordering on misplaced arrogance. These days, with his credentials made obvious by the opportunities seized, they are an indication of ambition. Potential is being consistently fulfilled.
The header converted on Saturday, a simple chance created by Juan Mata's vision and Ashley Cole's burst and delivery, was a 21st goal in 27 starts for Bolton and Chelsea. There have been four in four league appearances this term; the momentum generated as a Wanderer has been maintained even with his role tweaked to that of a right-sided prong tempted to come in-field as Mata directs the play. Sturridge can expect to feature against his club-mate in England's friendly against Spain next month, with a fixture against Sweden to follow a few days later. Fabio Capello name-checked the forward in the wake of the national team's qualification for Euro 2012 and Wayne Rooney's suspension.
Sturridge will retain a sense of perspective, born of previous frustration, as he contemplates what the future might hold. "England's always there, in the back of my mind, because I want to play for the national team," he said. "But I've not had a cap yet and I can't assume I'm going to get one. The England manager picks his squad on form and, at the moment, my form's clearly not good enough. But I'm going to make sure it is. To gain a cap would be a dream come true, but it's about working hard to achieve that.
"I came back [from Bolton and the summer's European Under-21 Championship] more confident because I'd been playing. I've matured. Playing regular first-team football does that for you. You become a more rounded person. I came back and I've been working even harder to make sure I got in the team, and I'm reminded constantly to keep going by my team-mates. They've taken me under their wing and said: 'You've got to keep working harder and not let this opportunity slip by.'"
He would clearly offer Capello versatility. Sturridge considers himself a central forward but a campaign at Chelsea spent on the right side of an attacking three will benefit his game. "I've had to get used to it very quickly because I'm at Chelsea and I can't shy away from the fact that I've got to do a job for the team," he said. "We have to win every game at this club, so it's important to have consistency in every way we go about our business." There is no time for adjustment. Retention of a first-team place demands an instant impact.
Everton were the latest opponents to suffer, their own neat and industrious approach play utterly undermined by a lack of firepower. Had the visitors had Sturridge in their ranks, they might have extended their unbeaten league sequence in these parts to a sixth year. As it was, they wilted. John Terry's header and Ramires' tap-in, the result of another Mata-inspired foray forward, made this comfortable for the watching Roman Abramovich.
The suspicion, aired afterwards by the visiting manager, David Moyes, is that the depth of Everton's squad will frustrate his own ambitions. "That's probably unrealistic," he said when asked if he could conjure another sixth-place finish. "I don't like saying that because I want to take the others on. I'm up for that challenge still but there's a gulf."
The substitute Apostolos Vellios scored eight seconds after his introduction but, as Moyes pointed out, "he cost us £100,000". Chelsea had the suspended £50m forward Fernando Torres in the stands. Yet it is Sturridge of their goalscorers who is truly catching the eye.