When Steven Gerrard leads out Liverpool in St. Jakob Park on Wednesday night, his appearance on the pitch will send television's chattering classes down a predictable route. Their memories having been jogged by Brendan Rodgers' press conference, they will sagely hold forth on the career-forming events of twelve years ago on the same pitch, when a very lack-lustre Gerrard was hauled unceremoniously from the action by Gérard Houllier at half time. At that stage, the Redmen were 3-0 down to FC Basel in the Champions League. In fact, so wretched had the young Liverpudlian's contribution been, that the Frenchman felt the unique midfield stylings of the mighty Salif Diao would be a better option than persisting with England's brightest hope. The Senegalese plodder contributed to a stirring three goal comeback, but it was not enough to see Liverpool advance.
In the aftermath, Houllier felt the need to chasten his young charge with a stinging admonishment about not believing his own hype. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the manager's criticism twelve years ago, save for it's particularly condescending tone. Now, however, in an era of emotionally fragile superstars, club bosses tend to use more carrot than stick. Over a decade ago, when Houllier spoke of the need for his player to shun everything except the singular focus on preparation, it was not atypical of the type of thing one heard from managers as they tried to corral the wayward talents at their disposal. To his credit, Gerrard responded magnificently to the barbed rebuke and by October 2003 he was the club captain -- a stunning testament to his capacity for development.
Now, at 34, Gerrard continues to show a capacity for change and evolution as Brendan Rodgers moves Heaven and Earth to keep his influential captain on the park for every game Liverpool will ever play. Of course, the even older bastion of male beauty and footballing talent that is Francesco Totti was only last night proving that well maintained old geezers can still cut a dash at the highest level with his delightful strike and guileful display against poor Manchester City and their massive European inferiority complex. Totti, playing behind the front man was magisterial, the efficiency and delicacy of his play still supported by an admirable capacity to cover the yards and sprint when required.
The main point of difference between Liverpool's captain and Roma's is that Totti does his ever-stylish thing primarily at the attacking end of the pitch -- a place many of us would dearly love to see the Huyton man deployed -- whereas Gerrard, in the role designed for him by Rodgers, is the hub of Liverpool's play; the base from which attacks are launched and opposition offensive effrontery is quelled. This is all very well when Gerrard's energy levels are at their maximum and his companions in the central areas are willing to run like demons, covering, tracking and getting ahead of the play. Should one of those elements be awry, Liverpool's play can break down dramatically, and sometimes has.
This brings us to the key question -- is Steven Gerrard capable of carrying out this critical role two or three times a week? The captain himself was understandably spiky in the wake of his fine goalscoring performance in the derby, taking the opportunity to deride those who would question his capacity to perform at the highest level. He seemed particularly stung by suggestions that his physical prowess was on the wane but it is hardly a particularly cruel suggestion that a man almost halfway through his fourth decade may struggle to compete with opponents ten years younger on multiple occasions over a short period. Brendan Rodgers, his head either firmly ensconced in the sand or peering sagely at us all from some exalted plane of awareness, is having none of this defeatist twaddle and feels his captain is coping admirably.
"I have mentioned it before and will do again that some of the criticism he is taking shows you the level he is playing - that teams deem him to be man-marked," Rodgers pointed out accurately. "This is a 34-year-old who never needs a day’s rest and is a genuine superstar; a world class player who has performed consistently for so many years - and this country has not produced too many of them. We know he won’t go on for ever, but as a footballer and a human being, as captain, every football person will know the qualities and influence he still has and he is a real catalyst for everything the team has done in the last 18 months.
"He has eight months left on his contract, yes, and it is something we are looking at as a club - and with him on how he feels. He is still in a real good physical condition. He will play and prepare himself right the way through to the very end and when that is we shall see. The younger players look how calm Stevie is and they know he has been at the level before and gone right the way through and won the tournament. They can draw inspiration from that. He is right in the thick of it, he is right in the centre of it, that is the position I have put him in so that he can orchestrate the team. That is something he has done magnificently and the players respond to that."
For now, at least, it appears as though the manager is reluctant to quit his perpetual reliance on his captain. Fate, of course, has also intervened here. Were Joe Allen and Emre Can available for selection, it is possible that Rodgers would be spinning a different yarn, deflecting queries about his non-selection with thoughtful treatises about how vital it is to maintain the gifted veteran in peak condition for selected games. Regardless, Liverpool will take their difficult second bow on the Champions League stage tonight and Steven Gerrard, his tiny brow furrowed, will lead them out.