FA Cup: Yesterday's hero, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard
Once the talisman of Liverpool, who could influence big games with sheer force of will and personality, 34-year-old Steven looked off the pace in the Reds' 1-2 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Aston Villa on Sunday
He controlled the cross-field pass from John Arne Riise on his chest, and let the ball bounce twice before thumping a shot into the far corner from all of 35 yards out. "Those are the moments that Liverpool supporters will remember," said the TV commentator. "If Steven Gerrard does leave Liverpool, he'll remember that one for the rest of his life."
Steven Gerrard. Pic/Getty Images
That goal against Middlesbrough came on April 30, 2005, towards the end of Rafael Benitez's first season as Liverpool manager. Michael Owen had left for Real Madrid the previous summer, and with Jose Mourinho and Chelsea romping towards a first league title in 50 years, talk was rife that Gerrard would also flee the red nest.
Less than a month after that stunning strike, Gerrard scored another, a looping header over Dida in the AC Milan goal. It would inspire the most remarkable of all Champions League final comebacks, in a game that came to be known as the Miracle of Istanbul. In its aftermath, Gerrard didn't pack his bags and leave for Chelsea. He stayed, to carry on being the talisman of his hometown club.
A decade later, in an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, Gerrard had three excellent opportunities to script a fairytale finish to his Liverpool career. In the final against West Ham United nine years earlier, he had produced a last-minute thunderbolt — in addition to an assist and superb goal in the first half — to take the game to extra time and then penalties. Liverpool hadn't won the Cup since.
Off the pace
Against Aston Villa, with a 1-0 lead having become a 1-2 deficit, Liverpool needed similar heroics. A free kick late in the game was right in Gerrard territory. He got it to curve and dip, but there was next to no power and it went straight into Shay Given's hands. Then, from a Phillippe Coutinho corner — Gerrard's deliveries had been poor – he rose above the defence to glance a header towards the far post. Kieron Richardson, once of Manchester United, cleared off the line.
With the seconds ticking down, Gerrard then went for one of the long sweeping passes that Owen and Fernando Torres used to thrive on. This time, Mario Balotelli controlled perfectly, and clipped the ball past Given only to find that the linesman had raised his flag for offside. Incorrectly.
Any angst over the erroneous call shouldn't obscure the fact that Villa were worthy winners. Fabian Delph, who came through the ranks at Leeds United before moving to Villa in 2009, was the game's outstanding performer, with Jack Grealish, all of 19, not far behind. In a Liverpool team that changed formations at least thrice during the game, Gerrard was one of those most off the pace.
Brendan Rodgers has been criticised for losing the tactical battle, but it's been fairly obvious for a while now that the Gerrard situation has left him with a conundrum. On form, the club captain no longer commands a place in the first XI. Yet, you can imagine the uproar if Rodgers had denied him a Wembley farewell. When Gerrard does play, Jordan Henderson seems much less influential, and Coutinho — Liverpool's player of the season — struggles to impose himself.
Last season, when Liverpool came as close as they have to a first title since 1990, Gerrard was frequently outstanding, both at dictating play and scoring crucial goals. However, since that slip against Chelsea that cost his team the title, he has been a different player. A World Cup debacle as England captain can't have helped, and no one incident encapsulated his 2014-15 season quite like the manic red card against United.
Played off the park
When he scored his first goal for Liverpool, a dazzling run and finish against Sheffield Wednesday in December 1999, Gerrard was 19, the same age that Grealish is now. That night in Istanbul, he was in his mid-20s and club captain, like Delph. Both younger men played him off the park on Sunday afternoon.
Gerrard, who once influenced big games with sheer force of will and personality, was a man out of time, yesterday's hero. Villa will play Arsenal in the final on May 30, the day he turns 35. An era has passed.
The writer is editor-in-chief of Wisden India