Gerrard’s magic powers could just net him the goal of a lifetime
The Liverpool captain has led his team to this point by metamorphosing into the kind of player many of us believed he never could be
Steven Gerrard reacts at the final whistle as Liverpool beat Manchester City 3-2 yesterday
Steven Gerrard hasn’t won major trophies very often, but when he does, he likes to do it in style.
In 2001, he was part of the team that beat Arsenal with two late Michael Owen goals. Later that week, he scored as Liverpool beat Alaves 5-4 in the highest-scoring Uefa Cup final. In 2005, there was the desperate glory of Istanbul, and in 2006, Gerrard scored one of the greatest FA Cup final goals to save Liverpool in injury time.
These moments have already guaranteed his place in Liverpool’s history, but if – in his 16th season, at nearly 34 years of age – he can finally lead them to the Premier League title, it will be the greatest achievement of his career.
Partly that is because Liverpool would be the most unlikely title winners since Aston Villa more than 30 years ago. They started the season at 33-1 to win the league. Bob Champion’s famous 1981 Grand National win on Aldanati was practically a dead cert by comparison, at odds of 10-1.
These days you predict the winners of the major leagues by payroll and Liverpool have the fifth-highest payroll in the division. Everything we thought we knew about modern football tells us they cannot be competing with petro-superpowers like Chelsea and Manchester City.
The Chelsea team that beat Swansea yesterday included two starters in Willian and Salah who had considered joining Liverpool only to choose bigger salaries in London, and on their bench sat the former idol of Anfield, Fernando Torres, tempted away in 2011 after deciding that as far as Liverpool were concerned, there was “no light at the end of the tunnel”.
Liverpool have no bench, no strength in depth; they have raw young players in attack and defence. Off the field, everything is against them. But on the field, it looks like destiny watches over them. Yesterday there was no penalty for Sakho’s foul on Dzeko, no penalty against Skrtel for his late hand-ball, no second yellow for Suarez’s dive.
Manchester City’s rock, Vincent Kompany, turned up at Anfield with only one good knee. In seven minutes, the best defender in the league was humbled by the 19-year-old Raheem Sterling, who hopped about like a sparrow before wrong-footing him and his goalkeeper and scoring into an unguarded goal.
Then at the crucial moment, after City had defied destiny by fighting back to 2-2, Kompany’s miskick sent the ball spinning to Philippe Coutinho. Coutinho is not the most reliable shooter, but this time he rifled the ball into the bottom corner.
Kompany could seek consolation in the autobiography of Andrea Pirlo, which is published tomorrow in English translation by Back Page Press. Reflecting on what Gerrard’s Liverpool did to his Milan team in Istanbul, Pirlo writes: “I’ll never fully shake that sense of absolute impotence when destiny is at work. The feeling will cling to my feet forever, trying to pull me down . . .”
Pirlo learned at the Ataturk Stadium that sometimes it’s just not your night – or your year. He reflects on Milan’s defeat: “There are always lessons to be found in the darkest moments. It’s a moral obligation to dig deep and find that little glimmer of hope or pearl of wisdom. You might hit upon an elegant phrase that stays with you and makes the journey that little bit less bitter. I’ve tried with Istanbul and haven’t managed to get beyond these words: for f**k’s sake.”
If Liverpool’s title challenge is already unlikely enough to hint at the involvement of supernatural forces, perhaps the most unlikely element of it is that Gerrard has led Liverpool to this point by metamorphosing into the kind of player many of us believed he never could be.
He always had the gifts of improvisation and inspiration, but, the argument ran, he lacked the patience and the game intelligence to be a truly influential central midfielder, the kind who protects his defence and controls the game from a deep position.
Yesterday, his former midfield partner Dietmar Hamann told the Daily Mail : “never did I expect to see him end up in my position, as a holding midfielder. He just wasn’t the most disciplined – and that position is all about being disciplined and giving the team balance. Often when you were playing with Steven you would think: ‘Where’s he going? What’s he doing there?’”
When Brendan Rodgers used him as the anchor against Aston Villa in January, Gerrard endured a disastrous first half that emphasised all the old doubts. Villa overran him and Liverpool were 2-0 down by the break. A tactical switch moved Gerrard further up the field after half-time, and he scored one and created the other as Liverpool rescued a draw.
Perseverance pays off
Most managers would have given up on the experiment right then but Rodgers persevered with it and has been rewarded with a run of 11 wins in 12 games.
And in these matches we have seen the emergence of a new Gerrard, alert and watchful, disciplined and strategic, rarely venturing beyond halfway, finding a team-mate with 90 per cent of his passes. He moves forward only for dead balls, and to devastating effect, scoring decisive goals from penalties or free-kicks in four of the 10 successive wins that have taken Liverpool to the brink.
What symmetry that the final coming-of-age of their greatest player of recent times might coincide with Liverpool ending that 24-year wait for the league title.