By Toby Davis
RECIFE Brazil (Reuters) - A YouTube video showing a young slip of a lad scything through the heart of defenses with devastating pace and the balance of a tightrope walker had Liverpool fans tapping at their keyboards in a flurry of excitement.
That player was a 15-year-old Raheem Sterling, just signed by Liverpool's then manager Rafa Benitez and showing dribbling ability not unlike the club's former England great John Barnes.
Fast forward four years, in the oppressive humidity of the Amazonian city of Manaus with the world's eyes watching, and Sterling showed he belongs in the very best international company.
Despite a disappointing 2-1 defeat in England's World Cup Group D opener against Italy on Saturday, he proved to be a ray of light piercing the thick jungle canopy.
Minutes into the match, Sterling picked up the ball from deep and surged forward before arrowing in an effort which looked destined for the corner before eventually slamming into the side netting.
Playing with a freedom so often absent among England players who seem burdened by the weight of frequent failure, he had Italy's defenders panicking from the start in a first-half performance of genuine quality.
After Italy took the lead it was Sterling who set the wheels in motion for England's well-worked equalizer, picking up the ball deep, striding forward and sliding a pass to the left where Wayne Rooney crossed for Daniel Sturridge to swat the ball home.
In those first 45 minutes, the youngster who grew up in north west London had fully justified coach Roy Hodgson's decision to include him over more experienced heads.
Throwing Sterling into the fray when question marks had been raised about his discipline following a sending off in a warm-up game against Ecuador in Miami meant Hodgson was taking a gamble that could have gone either way.
There were no dissenting voices at fulltime, however, because, while he looked a work in progress rather than a polished diamond, Sterling sparkled with flashes of ingenuity so often lacking in recent generations of England teams.
"Sterling was as bright as we hoped he would be," said Hodgson, a naturally cautious manager who earned deserved credit for giving him the chance to shine.
The World Cup comes at the culmination of a breakthrough season in the Premier League for Sterling after his early promise at Liverpool appeared to have wilted at the tail end of the last campaign and the start of this one.
Understandably for one so young, his ability to maintain a sustained influence on a game often faded and he found himself out of the starting lineup as Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool side began what turned into an unexpected title challenge.
He returned to the team for a 3-1 away defeat by Hull City in December that could have seen him shunted back down the pecking order but instead proved a catalyst for a resurgence that made him an almost guaranteed starter as Liverpool climbed the table.
Three goals in four games followed the Hull defeat while a double against Arsenal in February made everyone stand up and take notice.
Yet it was the way Sterling grew into the variety of roles he was asked to perform as the pressure of the season's culmination mounted that forced him into England reckoning.
Now he heads up a group of young attacking players at Hodgson's disposal who represent a break from the past and England's traditionally staid and stolid outlook.
Writing in the Daily Mail, former England defender Rio Ferdinand described Sterling as a "breath of fresh air, attacking without fear, taking people on, going for goal, playing like he’s enjoying trying to win".
If England are to have any chance of reaching the knockout stages from a group that also includes Costa Rica and Uruguay, the youngster from Wembley is likely to have a defining impact.
(Reporting by Toby Davis; editing by Ken Ferris)