• Champions League return a benchmark for Rodgers
• Daniel Sturridge: 'great' to work under Liverpool manager
Brendan Rodgers has said Liverpool will sustain their challenge for Champions League qualification this season irrespective of Saturday's test at Arsenal.
The Liverpool manager has refrained from predictions during his team's impressive start to the campaign but admitted he expects to be in contention for a top-four finish. Liverpool are third, two points behind Arsenal, and Saturday's game represents the toughest assignment so far in their quest to return to the Champions League for the first time since 2009-10.
Rodgers is adamant Liverpool have the ability to inflict a third successive home defeat on Arsène Wenger's team and will have Philippe Coutinho available after the influential Brazilian's recovery from shoulder surgery. Regardless of Saturday'soutcome, Rodgers insists Liverpool have already demonstrated the quality and consistency required to rejoin the European elite next term.
"It is a good benchmark for us. We have shown that we have quality in the team, that we've got a winning mentality, which is important, and that we can consistently bring that to the table. Saturday won't be the be-all-and-end-all in terms of whether we can make the top four or not, but I think what we have shown so far is that we are going to be in the conversation.
"I believe we are in a good moment. We have started the season as we would have wanted – strong – and I think we can only get better and improve. We have a lot of young players who are still developing and improving and that goes for the front two who everyone is talking about [Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge].
"Daniel is still only 24 and improving all the time. Everyone talks about Luis's goals and work-rate but I've seen an improvement in his footballing ability and his maturity this year. That bodes well for us. We won't get carried away. We have to keep our concentration and continue to work hard on the training field."
Sturridge has scored 10 goals in 11 appearances for Liverpool this season and, in a dig at his former club Chelsea, has credited his outstanding form to being granted the centre-forward's role he rarely received at Stamford Bridge.
In an interview with Sport magazine, the England international said: "When I went to Bolton [on loan], I was able to show what I can do because I was playing as a centre-forward.
"At Chelsea, I never got the chance to do that, and I've got that opportunity here. I'm just playing the position that I enjoy playing in. My faith in God, my self-belief and the hard work I put in on the training field; they've all helped me become the player I am now, but I'd say the biggest difference is I'm back to my natural thoughts and I've got no clouded vision when I'm on the field. That's probably the main thing that has changed."
The Liverpool striker also cites Rodgers as a major influence on his improvement and insists that, along with international colleagues Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck, "none of us see ourselves as wingers or midfielders".
On Rodgers, Sturridge adds: "I knew about him from when I was at Chelsea, and the players who were there spoke highly of him. He had tried to get me on loan when he was at Swansea, so I knew he rated me. He knows how I work. He knows what I need. I needed to be believed in, to play as a centre-forward at a club. I didn't get that at Chelsea, and Brendan gave me the opportunity to do that here. We work well together, and it's great to be part of his philosophy. He gets the most out of his players and makes us want to win for him. He's just very good at man-management as well as the tactics and team stuff."
Rodgers has told Daniel Agger that he remains integral to his plans at Liverpool despite leaving the club's vice-captain on the bench for the last three games. Agger missed two matches after aggravating a rib injury against Southampton in September and this week spoke of his frustration at being unable to reclaim a starting role.
"I have reassured him. Daniel understands the situation. Every player wants to play. He's a top player. He's trained remarkably well and it's obviously been difficult for him since he came out of the team with that injury against Southampton. The team has done very well since. It's something that he understands. He's come in and has got a smile on his face and he's working exceptionally well. It's the whole squad that we need to succeed. He's fighting and waiting for that moment when he can get back in.
"If you look at some of the other squads around – the Chelsea team that started at Arsenal the other night would have a chance of winning the league as well – that's what brings you success. You have to have players fighting, so that when you play you have to be at your best. We have a long way to go to get to that position."