Teenager plays major role in Reds' title push after listening to Brendan Rodgers and improving his work rate
Top of the league would take care of itself, Brendan Rodgers told Liverpool's players on Sunday, if they just "go out there and enjoy it" against Tottenham Hotspur. Few heeded the advice better than Raheem Sterling and his willingness to listen and learn has brought greater reward this season than the man-of-the-match tributes that flowed at Anfield.
Whether engineering the breakthrough inside two minutes, dispossessing Younès Kaboul, constantly driving at his marker or regaining possession with a shoulder charge in central midfield, the 19-year-old revelled in the high-stakes contest against directionless Spurs. Liverpool supporters were not the only ones enraptured by his performance at Anfield. The watching England assistant manager, Ray Lewington, witnessed a convincing audition for the injured Theo Walcott's place at the World Cup.
Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge have created the headlines in Liverpool's title charge and Steven Gerrard's shift to a holding midfielder has been an unqualified success. But the development of young English talent such as Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Jon Flanagan has also played an instrumental part. Sterling offers particular satisfaction for Rodgers.
It was only in September that the Liverpool manager admitted the teenager "needs to stabilise his life" following a second court appearance of the year on a charge of common assault – both were dropped. A familiar tale of too much, too young loomed.
The response from Sterling has been impressive. His industry and physical strength have improved significantly, while Rodgers has trusted the player at key moments and in different positions. The career path has straightened.
"I think my work rate and confidence have improved, the working and pressing you have to do for the team," is Sterling's explanation. "I just want to get on the front foot for the team. We went out there on the front foot against Spurs and pressed really well from the start. We nicked the second goal through Luis that way and that is something we have been working on in training. It was great to see it come off on the pitch.
"I also now have the confidence to go and play as I have got players like Luis and Stevie giving me encouragement. It's a credit to them. High-end players like Steven Gerrard will always make sure your feet are firmly on the floor. I'm not that type of person, so I don't think that would be a problem really. There will never be a problem with my feet coming off the floor.
"I try to switch off after every game. I try to watch my performances two days after, once everything has settled down, and I have a look when I'm ready to focus. It's also great to have a manager that has belief in you. For a young player that's all you cry out for. I'm grateful that he has so much belief in me."
Sterling started England's win over Denmark on 7 March and believes Sunday's win showed Roy Hodgson's right-hand man an improvement in his overall game. "I hope he will have seen that I worked really hard for the team and it wasn't just about going forward," he said of Lewington's visit to Anfield.
"I was always looking to track my man back. I was just happy to be on the winning team and it was credit to the boys again. It was a great team performance. We weren't thinking that other results had gone our way. The manager just told us to go out there and enjoy it. He told us that, if we played our game, we would be on top of the league and that is what we did. It was a great win."
The match against Tottenham marked Sterling's 71st appearance for Liverpool in all competitions and a return to the starting line-up after being a substitute against Sunderland and Cardiff City. "It is disappointing when you sit on the bench for two games but I knew I just had to be ready as I couldn't be on flat heels if I got called up again. It was great that the manager had the confidence and belief to put me in for such a big game as Tottenham. The atmosphere in the stadium was amazing.
"I had heard about the fans being like that on Champions League nights but it was great to actually experience it. It was the best atmosphere I have ever played in. I have heard a lot from Flano and Stevie what it can be like in here on Champions League nights. It's all to dream about. We all know what the dream is and we are all working to make the dream a reality."
Six more wins will secure a 19th and most unexpected league title for Liverpool. The visits of Manchester City and Chelsea to Anfield, on 13 and 27 April respectively, appear defining moments but Sterling insists they hold no fear for Liverpool.
"Of the remaining games, it is going to be difficult against those two but I think we fancy ourselves against anyone at Anfield," he said. "We just want to be taking it step by step and hopefully we will do the business when they get here.
"As the season has gone on, we have had a bit more belief. But we won't get ahead of ourselves. We are on the run-in now, into the last six games, but there is a really good atmosphere around the training camp."