By Liverpool Correspondent Cam Downes
It is a question of ambition. For Liverpool and for Raheem Sterling.
How much are Liverpool willing to pay to secure the long-term future of a player Brendan Rodgers has consistently eulogised as one of the best in his age group in Europe?
In turn, how convinced are Sterling and his advisers that the contract on offer from one of football’s great institutions rewards both his exhilarating progress and the potential he has to improve?
Days after Steven Gerrard dropped a grenade into the lap of Liverpool owners FSG by publically warning them of the importance of tying Sterling and team-mate Jordan Henderson to new deals, Rodgers claimed the package offered to the 20-year-old forward was “incredible” and “wonderful”.
Given that the eye-watering sums involved are believed to amount to a basic £100,000-a-week, plus incentives, few observers would disagree with Rodgers’ logic.
Liverpool can legitimately claim that they are doing all they can to reward a player whose progress over the last 15 months has been as breakneck as one of the thrilling counterattacks he leads on match days.
In turn, Sterling is entitled to bide his time and hold back on extending his current £40,000-a-week agreement, which expires in the summer of 2017.
This might be regarded as another example of football’s alternative reality, of a promising young player whose achievements do not quite match the hype and who is being convinced by those around him that the grass could be greener on the other side.
Yet, Liverpool possess a unique talent, as Rodgers himself emphasised after Sterling had scored twice and laid on another for Luis Suarez in a thrilling win against Norwich City last April. “Raheem is arguably the best young player in European football .moment,” claimed the manager. “If he doesn’t win PFA Young Player of the Year it is ridiculous.”
That honour eventually went to Eden Hazard. But Sterling ran the Belgian wizard close and his reputation has continued to rise in the intervening period.
Sterling’s scoring statistics this season do not offer conclusive proof of his value – nine goals in 35 matches – but the context is provided by his contributions in what has been a difficult campaign for his club, most tellingly since being asked to take on a new spearhead role as cover for first-choice front man Daniel Sturridge.
The former QPR man is a diamond that still requires some polishing, but he is the jewel in Liverpool’s playing crown.
His combination of blistering pace, touch, technique and decision-making under pressure, allied to improving finishing and greater robustness, make him one of the most thrilling sights in the Premier League, as well as well as one of its outstanding performers. Liverpool know this and so do Sterling and his representatives.
This does not mean Sterling wants to leave Anfield. As his advisers have made it clear in off-the-record media briefings, he does not. The Sterling camp are grateful to the guidance the player has received since moving from QPR as a 15-year-old. It merely signifies that he is trying to get the kind of deal to which he believes he is entitled.
The England international holds some strong cards in negotiations. There is genuine interest from Europe’s elite, with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain joining Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea in closely monitoring his situation.
The deal Liverpool have offered might be “incredible”, but it is also the going rate for a player of his age and rare ability.
Moreover, the gargantuan new Premier League TV deal means the riches on offer to the top players from when it kicks in next year will be at an even more stratospheric level. Sterling could sit back, run down his current contract and join another club in 18 months in a deal worth double what Liverpool are offering.
Liverpool’s principal owner John W Henry cut a relaxed figure in the Anfield directors’ box on Tuesday night as, like the injured Sterling, he watched on as the resurgent Merseysiders beat an impressive Tottenham side 3-2.
Yet, Liverpool fans will be expecting Henry and his boardroom colleagues to demonstrate the kind of ambition that was noticeably absent when Suarez was allowed to join Barcelona last summer and be replaced by a collection of players who are far from the finished article.
Should Sterling follow Suarez out of the exit door, it will confirm the suspicion of many that Liverpool are now a selling club and any player on the wage bill can be seduced elsewhere.
Contract negotiations are a game of poker. But Liverpool know Sterling has a strong hand. They should pay what it takes to keep him.