x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Stewart Downing's count begins at Liverpool

The rated winger ended his goal-drought, but Richard Jolly wonders if it is too little, too late.

Stewart Downing, third from right, scored his first goal for Liverpool in 16 months on Saturday against Fulham.
Stewart Downing, third from right, scored his first goal for Liverpool in 16 months on Saturday against Fulham.

Both are left-footed, both started off as wingers and both have found their scoring return debated frequently in 2012. And there the similarities end.

Stewart Downing has scored 86 times fewer than Lionel Messi this calendar year.

It is a cheap jibe, definitely not the first and almost certainly not the last of his Liverpool career.

His match on Saturday provided a rare triumph but even that came cloaked in damning statistics.

In his 45th game, with his 82nd shot, the £20 million (Dh118.5m) man belatedly scored a league goal for the club. To add to the sense the 4-0 win over Fulham was a unique occasion, he also recorded a first assist.

Yet, having ended a 16-month wait, the first day of the rest of Downing's Liverpool life starts tonight at Stoke City. It had seemed he was, at the age of 28, entering the last week of his time at Anfield; Brendan Rodgers had informed him he would listen to offers in January.

Now there has been a rethink.

"We don't want him to go anywhere," Rodgers said.

Yet despite a timely reminder of Downing's ability, others are required if he is to remain in the team.

Despite his return to prominence, two players will be added to Liverpool's forward line next month: Daniel Sturridge, whose £12m move from Chelsea will be finalised, and probably Thomas Ince, like Downing a left-footed winger.

Ushered out of the Anfield exit to join Blackpool last summer, Ince's star rose as Downing's fell. "Maybe it hasn't gone quite as well for him as what he would have wanted," Rodgers said in an understatement.

This season brought fresh indignities, despite Liverpool's lack of wingers; demotion behind the teenagers Raheem Sterling and Suso; omission from the 18 altogether; selection at left-back while the defender Jose Enrique was put ahead of him and deemed the greater attacking threat.

Recognition and respect were almost as elusive as a goal. "It's been a long time coming," Downing conceded. A long time in which he served as a microcosm of Liverpool's disastrous 2011 spending spree on men Kenny Dalglish argued would form the spine of the side for years, but who Rodgers seemed eager to dispose of.

Even Dalglish's defence of Downing invited ridicule. His suggestion, earlier this year, that the former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough footballer was an even better player than he realised when paying £20m for him, did neither the manager nor the player any favours.

The facts and figures were unavoidable. A player with few frills and flourishes but a reputation for productivity was not producing.

Now, finally, he has. He encounters the Premier League's best defence today, and then one of its leakiest, in relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers, on Sunday, with the opportunity to make himself indispensable before Sturridge and Ince are available and when, seemingly, Luis Suarez will adopt a wider position to accommodate the Chelsea striker.

After a blunt appraisal by Rodgers of his prospects a couple of months ago - "a kick up the backside", Downing said - he improved.

"I had nothing to lose," he added. "I worked hard to get to a club like this and I want to stay."

The evidence of his first season at Anfield was that, whether or not he possessed the talent to play for Liverpool, he lacked the temperament. Thus, the goal should provide an injection of confidence to accompany the quality a newly enthusiastic Rodgers believes he has.

"He's a wonderful technician, Stewart," Rodgers said. "When he's playing like that, there's not too many better players that can play on the sides."

With his manager won over, one battle has been won. Another begins next month.

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