When Brendan Rodgers heard about a sportsman spraying an attractive Chinese girl with champagne, the Liverpool manager was probably relieved to learn it was Lewis Hamilton and not Raheem Sterling.
To say it has not been a good week for Sterling is an understatement. The Liverpool forward may not know who his friends are, but he certainly knows now that someone he thought was a pal is, in fact, a disloyal, money-grabbing rat.
Sterling was caught on camera inhaling nitrous oxide — so-called laughing gas — from a balloon at his home in Southport. Apart from the fact it is a brainless thing to do, Sterling was obviously happy for someone to film it on a camera phone.
The contents found their way to a no-doubt generous tabloid newspaper which splashed the story on its front page with the video on its web site. It is impossible not to believe Sterling knows who filmed him and subsequently made a nice little earner from it.
Sterling’s week managed to get even worse because two days later, photographs emerged of him holding a shisha pipe — a water pipe in which flavoured tobacco roasted with charcoal is passed through a water chamber and inhaled — at a London bar.
Those who believe you are who you associate with would advise Sterling to choose his friends more carefully.
Let’s give Sterling, 20, the benefit of the doubt and assume the laughing gas was brought to the house by a friend. Why on earth the England international could have thought it would be a good idea to try it beggars belief. Did it never occur to Sterling that inhaling nitrous oxide was an irresponsible act, even if it had not reached the public domain? Obviously not. While it is not illegal to take it, can such behavior really just be put down to youthful enthusiasm? A 20-year-old’s “mistake?” Liverpool and the Professional Footballers’ Association are treating Sterling’s indiscretions as “a mistake” rather than a need for disciplinary action, his club believing that help rather than a fine is the way forward.
Sterling is hoping for a five-fold increase on his current £35,000-a-week deal and he would help his cause if he started to behave like a professional sportsman rather than a wild child. He is an undoubtedly talented player, though far from the finished article, and his image has been considerably damaged by the disclosures this week.
It was not the sort of build-up to Sunday’s F.A. Cup semifinal against Aston Villa at Wembley that Rodgers had in mind. Once again, football was second on the media agenda with Sterling’s off-field antics inevitably dominating press conferences.
Sterling’s off-field antics are not Rodgers’ only worry. Defender Mamadou Sakho will miss the game because of a hamstring injury while, almost inevitably, striker Daniel Sturridge, who has scored only four times in an injury-interrupted season, is a doubt.
Rodgers must also decide whether to recall Steven Gerrard, who has played only 27 minutes of football in the past two months. Gerrard will be desperate to figure to ensure his Liverpool career ends with an F.A. Cup final appearance on his 35th birthday on May 30 against either Reading or Arsenal, but he is likely to start on the bench.
While Liverpool’s Champions League hopes have been dented by losses to Arsenal and Manchester United, Villa’s recent form under new manager Tim Sherwood has been impressive, taking it six points clear of the relegation zone.
Christian Benteke is playing as well as any striker in the Premier League while the emergence of Jack Grealish has given the Villa midfield more bite. Grealish, 19, does not lack confidence — when Sherwood told him he was to make his first start against Queens Park Rangers earlier this month, the teenager replied: “About time, too.”
Sherwood loves the cocky edge Grealish has, and said: “I never had a doubt, and you know why? Because he’s absolutely loved here. When I first came in he was sitting on the bench, the fans were singing someone’s name and I thought ‘It’s not mine — who are they chanting for?’ But it was Jack they were calling for. For someone who’s not really played that much, he’s a star.”
While the second semifinal is a close call, Saturday’s game between Reading and Arsenal looks to have only one possible outcome. F.A. Cup holder Arsenal, along with Manchester United, is playing the best football in the Premier League while Reading is 18th in the Championship.
Arsenal has won 16 of its last 18 matches. Reading has failed to win any of its five games since beating Bradford City in the quarterfinals. Oliver Giroud has scored 11 goals in his last 13 appearances and the Gunners ooze class in every area.
Reading manager Steve Clarke must hope a huge dose of complacency sets in the Arsenal camp as the Royals play their first F.A. Cup semifinal in 88 years.
Ten minutes after Saturday’s semifinal at Wembley kicks off, Chelsea plays Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in a first-vs.-third clash that holds far more interest for the neutrals. Television dictates when games are played and Sky Sports broadcasts Premier League games, with the BBC and BT Sport holding the rights to the F.A. Cup. Collaboration over kick-off times does not exist.
Clarke said: “There are things that we should do to protect this great competition. It should be special.”
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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