Raheem Sterling is not the finished article at Liverpool

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Raheem Sterling - the extended interview

Raheem Sterling's contract wrangle with Liverpool has provided an unwelcome sideshow as they pursue a top-four place to return to the Champions League next season and manager Brendan Rodgers targets his first trophy in the FA Cup.

Now, in an exclusive interview with BBC Sport, the 20-year-old has confirmed all contract talks are off the table until the summer, increasing speculation his future may lie away from Anfield.

So is Sterling worth all the fuss and the figures of £180,000 a week that are currently swirling around - and how much would Liverpool miss him if he left?

Just how good is Raheem Sterling?

Sterling is very good with the potential to be outstanding - but is nowhere near the finished article. He remains a work in progress in the manner of any 20-year-old with a career almost in its infancy.

He is blessed with natural pace that makes even the best defences and defenders take a step back, allied to a talent that plays on the opposition's nerves.

The perfect example was the brilliant individual goal he scored against Chelsea to earn Liverpool a 1-1 draw in the Capital One Cup semi-final at Anfield in January, taking a pass from Jordan Henderson, leaving Nemanja Matic for dead and making Gary Cahill look like he had weights attached to his boots before beating Thibaut Courtois in front of The Kop.

Raheem Sterling

This was Sterling at his best but his finishing is still not his strong point and he has struggled at times this season to reproduce the brilliance he showed alongside Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge when Liverpool almost claimed their first title in 24 years last season.

Sterling may develop into a natural finisher in time but he is nowhere near that as yet. He is still more of a creative force than a player who delivers the end product with regularity and reliability.

He remains an integral part of England's present and future under manager Roy Hodgson, with his adaptability and ability to play wide, at the tip of a midfield diamond and centrally, offering flexibility.

But he is still not England's "go to" man, which is understandable at this early stage of his career. He is not yet a player England cannot afford to be without.

Raheem Sterling playing for England against Lithuania
Raheem Sterling scored his first senior goal for England in the 4-0 win against Lithuania on Friday

Sterling will undoubtedly have been noticed on the world stage, but he has not captured the imagination completely. He will be recognised as a fine talent and a potential star of the future - but the key word is "potential".

There is no way he can be bracketed among the game's elite stars and he is blameless for that. This is a young man making his way in the game, which has also added to the conjecture, and in some areas disapproval, about the contract numbers being played out.

How much would Liverpool miss Sterling if he left?

Liverpool still remain hopeful Sterling will stay and if he does he will be a prime asset for however long he remains at Anfield - but the clocks would not stop and the foundations on the new stand would not shift if he left.

The departure of Luis Suarez, who had moved into the top three group of world stars alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo when he moved to Barcelona in a £75m deal, was far more damaging simply because of the scale of his talent, his intensity which was the stuff of manager Rodgers' dreams and his ability to strike instant fear into opposing teams and fans.

And when captain Steven Gerrard leaves for LA Galaxy, it signals the departure of the man plenty regard as the greatest player to wear Liverpool's shirt, someone who drove the team and the club in hours of need sometimes by sheer force of personality.

Sterling would not fall into that category as a departure. Of course it would be a blow but Liverpool would be well rewarded and he could not be regarded as irreplaceable.

Suarez and Gerrard were players to build a team around. Sterling has not had time to reach that sort of stature. It may happen in the future but if he were to leave now it would be a setback, but not a mortal one.

Liverpool have youngsters such as Jordon Ibe coming through as well as a manager in Rodgers set on developing talent through their Academy so while there would be disappointment, they would recover.

Where could Sterling go?

There will be interest but do not rule out Liverpool owner John W Henry taking the same hard line he adopted when Luis Suarez tried to force a move in the summer of 2013.

He simply refused to do business, especially with Arsenal, and only sold at a time of his choosing and after Suarez had made it virtually impossible for him to return to the Premier League after biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.

Henry will be even more reluctant to do business with teams in the Premier League, especially those he regards as rivals. Liverpool do not need money so there will be no financial pressure to sell. Sterling also has two years left on his contract so it is not as if it the paper it is written on is burning down before Liverpool's eyes, or indeed the player's.

Manchester City will look to rebuild this summer and would cast an eye in Sterling's direction but the money involved would be eye-watering even for them - and the same would apply to the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

Raheem Sterling shoots against Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny
Raheem Sterling has had 27 shots on target this season

City manager Manuel Pellegrini said recently: "Can you get Sterling? Maybe if you go to Liverpool with £100m you can."

This leaves the usual suspect. Real Madrid.

They could afford a deal and, in Liverpool's terms, Sterling would be out of the way in Spain rather than on the doorstep in the Premier League. It is certain the idea would appeal to Sterling and his representatives should he decide he does not wish to stay at Anfield.

Could he replace Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Technically yes - but all the noises coming out of the Bernabeu from the club and the player suggest he will stay although everyone knows how quickly the scenery can shift at Real Madrid.

The more pertinent question is whether Real would believe Sterling is good enough and has the sort of profile they invariably require for a signing who would cost "Galactico" money?

In real terms he is only taking the first footsteps in his career. He is a name that would intrigue rather than excite Real's fans.

He is no Cristiano Ronaldo (nor should he be at this stage of his development) or has he had the sort of season Bale had behind him at Tottenham when he moved to Spain for £85m in summer 2013, when he scored 21 goals in 33 Premier League games, with four assists.

Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a world transfer record £85m in 2013

And would such a move be right for him at just 20, leaving a club where he will be carefully nurtured by a manager in Rodgers who loves the challenge of moulding young players?

Rodgers can offer the sort of sympathy he might not be afforded in a hothouse such as The Bernabeu, even allowing Sterling a short break in Jamaica this season to recharge his batteries.

Will Real feel he is ready for them? And is it wise for Sterling to move to a club where players can be swallowed up by expectations that demand success yesterday?

Sterling still has more to do to make him seem like a neat fit for Real.

Will Liverpool fans turn on Sterling?

Liverpool's fans are notoriously loyal to their own but there is no doubt Sterling risks tampering with that loyalty and affection the longer a new contract lies unsigned.

It was noticeable in the home defeat against Manchester United that - amid a poor team performance it should be stressed - there was more than the usual level of discontent and murmuring when Sterling erred.

Sterling has not been in Liverpool's first team long enough to have won the hearts of supporters in the manner of Gerrard, Suarez, Jamie Carragher of even Fernando Torres in his glorious golden period. He is liked but not loved.

Raheem Sterling

And the sense from most Liverpool fans is that while they would be delighted he if he stayed, you do not uncover many who would shed tears if he left. Some may even feel that if £100,000 is not enough to persuade him to stay, then he should be swiftly shifted out.

The timing of this continued speculation is not working in his favour with supporters who may, despite Sterling's insistence money is not a motive, start to believe he and his representative are overplaying their financial hand.

It takes a lot for Liverpool supporters to turn on their players and it would be major shock if there was an open show of discontent aimed at one player.

It does not usually work like that at Anfield - but for Sterling's sake his games at Anfield will be a lot more comfortable if he excelled between now and the end of the season.

Is money Sterling's motive?

Sterling insists again in his BBC interview that it is not - therefore he must be taken at his word.

Sterling not 'money-grabbing 20-year-old'

So what is the delay? Is it the timing at such a late stage of the season? He admits if it had been offered earlier he would have signed.

Does he want Champions League football? Well he had that earlier in the season and played his part in Liverpool's downfall at the group stage. It is in his power to help deliver it again next season for Liverpool.

Raheem Sterling

Is he worried about a lack of trophies? Possibly, but Liverpool are in the process of building a vibrant young squad and this smacks of over-impatience from a 20-year-old.

Does he merit £150,000-a-week or more? Each to their own bargaining power, but you are not talking about a player who is a world name or someone who can be bracketed with the likes of Wayne Rooney at Manchester United?

All will be revealed at the end of the season - until then the speculation will continue.


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