Liverpool's agonising decision over injury-prone, influential Sturridge

Daniel Sturridge proved last weekend how valuable he can still be to Liverpool and his return to full fitness could not have been timelier for the Merseysiders.

The injury-prone striker dazzled in a 4-0 win at West Ham that has left the Reds needing only to beat already-relegated Middlesbrough to finish in the top four.

Liverpool might be home and dry already if Sturridge had been available these past few months. In recent weeks, they failed to beat the likes of Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Southampton at home, and Sturridge could have made the difference in those tight games.

Hopefully, then, Jurgen Klopp has wrapped him in cotton wool this week to ensure he is fit for this weekend. The big question is if Sturridge turns it on against Boro, how will that affect his future?

For the club, the decision looks straightforward. This is a striker who earns £150k a week but seems to spend around half of every season injured -- a player who doesn't even make the manager's first-choice XI when everybody is fit, but who would bring in a transfer fee of around £30 million. That's a no-brainer, surely, certainly to the club's money men at least.

For supporters, and perhaps even for Klopp himself, it's more complicated. They see Sturridge breathe life into Liverpool's spluttering chase for a Champions League place and it's almost impossible not to start playing the "what if" game. What if he could somehow put his injury problems behind him? Even if he doesn't, what if Liverpool kept him anyway? He's such a special player that having him for even half a season will still help the team, right?

It depends. Sturridge's fitness problems have really hurt Liverpool over the past three years, mostly because they had nobody else as good as him who could fill the void when he wasn't there.

That looked to have changed this season when Klopp's preferred front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho were lighting up the Premier League in the first half of the campaign. With that trio available Sturridge isn't needed, so if he's injured it's no big deal. He's a luxury item, but who doesn't love a bit of luxury in their lives? If Sturridge missed time early on it barely even registered with supporters because the goals were flying in without him.

When things changed around the turn of the year and Liverpool needed Sturridge he wasn't there, and the past few months have been a real grind for them. Klopp's forward line, so electric in the first half of the season, has become ponderous and predictable without Mane. Sturridge could have provided the missing spark, but as has been the case so often over the past few years, he was in the treatment room.

It's difficult to justify keeping a player that you can't count on, regardless of how talented he is. But then you see him play and just can't help but wonder "what if?"

Supporters can easily make a case for keeping Sturridge. Liverpool will need a big squad next season and finding someone of his calibre won't come easy or cheap. He's a special player, a match winner, and you can never have too many of those.

So what if he can't run around and pressure defenders like Firmino? Klopp's high-pressing style has proved to be devastating against footballing sides, but when the opposition defend deep and you need a bit of extra quality and unpredictability to break them down, that's where Sturridge can be invaluable. Liverpool come up against that approach far more often than they face the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal, but sadly when they do Sturridge is often sidelined and therein lies the problem.

Klopp has probably already made up his mind to move on from Sturridge, but even if he were leaning towards keeping the player it would be a tough sell to convince the club's owners, especially if there is significant interest in him from elsewhere.

Sturridge's contract runs until the summer of 2019 but his value is at its maximum now, particularly as his injury problems are unlikely to suddenly disappear.

Klopp is expected to bring in two more attacking players this summer, with Roma's Mohamed Salah and RB Leipzig's Timo Werner rumoured to be targets. Finances aside, that would actually make it easier to keep Sturridge, as Liverpool would no longer be as dependent on him and could therefore treat his sporadic availability as a nice bonus.

Liverpool's owners do not operate like that, however, and it would be naive to think that they would turn down £30m and the opportunity to get his wages off the books should it arise. If Klopp were to keep Sturridge, it would likely impact his ability to bring in the other players he needs, as Liverpool's recent transfer policy has been very much "sell to buy."

So while nothing is certain, it does seem likely that Sunday's must-win game against Middlesbrough at Anfield could be Sturridge's last in a red shirt.

Whatever the future holds, this weekend is an opportunity for him to ensure that if and when he does eventually leave, supporters will remember him for something positive rather than just "what if."