The days when Liverpool needed to rely on Steven Gerrard are long gone. No one at Anfield should expect anything from him today.
The Aston Villa manager takes his team to the Etihad and if he can stop Manchester City winning then Jurgen Klopp’s men will have a chance to finish on top of the Premier League – assuming Liverpool can beat Wolverhampton Wanderers in front of the Kop. Gerrard carried his boyhood club for more than a decade but was unable to win the title. That is a source of regret to the 41-year-old.
The closest that Liverpool came to winning the league in the Gerrard era was eight years ago when Brendan Rodgers’ team were in pole position going into the final week of the season. Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea that allowed the London club to go into the lead in their 2-0 victory has become the stuff of folklore. Those of a romantic disposition among the Liverpool fanbase have been imagining a denouement where Villa nick a point or more in Manchester and earn redemption for the man from Huyton. It’s doubtful that Gerrard would feel vindicated: there’s not much romance without the medals.
No, Liverpool are merely a side issue for Gerrard now. When he was appointed in November, Villa were 16th in the table and facing a relegation battle. They enter the final day of the campaign only two places higher but the mood has changed at Villa Park. The spectre of the drop had evaporated before the new year. Next season more progress will be expected. A top-10 finish is mathematically possible today but is extremely unlikely. In a year’s time Villa will need to be in the top half of the table.
Much was made of Gerrard leaving Danny Ings and Philippe Coutinho, the former Liverpool duo, out of the starting line-up for the 1-1 draw against Burnley on Thursday. Ings would certainly be in Villa’s best XI but the Brazilian has been rotated with Emi Buendia in recent weeks and the Argentine has outperformed his more illustrious teammate. Gerrard was not saving anyone for the next game. He was putting out the side he thought was best equipped to deal with Burnley.
The urge to see Gerrard as the heir apparent to Klopp at Anfield is misplaced and sentimental. Nothing that happens on Sunday will affect this although if the Villa manager was able to out-think Pep Guardiola it would look good on his resume. This week may have been strange for Gerrard, who is someone used to being the centre of attention. Now he is an extra in the big events going on around him.
Rangers, the club he left for Villa, contested the Europa League final, losing on penalties to Eintracht Frankfurt. On Sunday, his team are expected to be bit-part players in City’s quest for glory.
Gerrard would rather be the star of the show. Early in his playing career some around Anfield nicknamed him “Stevie Me” because they felt he was self-centred. That was unfair. When someone is such a prodigious talent it is not surprising that they want more possession and will try things their teammates cannot accomplish rather than passing the ball. That perception faded as it became clear that Gerrard was dragging the side to higher levels.
Nevertheless, quite a few people have been shocked by his success as a manager. They felt that his somewhat insular character was more suited to leading by example. There were many times during his playing career when he looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and not enjoying it. Plenty of astute Liverpool observers thought that the stresses of management would not suit him. They have been delighted to see him thrive in his post-playing career.
He wants to win badly on Sunday but he is aiming at victory for himself and Villa. If Liverpool profit from his success, it will be a happy accident. Defeat always brings disappointment but Gerrard is realistic. City are the best team in the Premier League – at least until the table tells us differently – and if Villa lose their boss will be shedding no tears for Liverpool.
More than any other player in Anfield’s history, he was the man the Kop wanted on the ball when time was running out and heroics were necessary. Yet if he delivers again on Sunday, he won’t be doing it for Liverpool. Those days are over. Gerrard has other priorities now.