Gerrard's future uncertain despite walking off from defeat with head held high

Posterity once imbued Steven Gerrard with mixed feelings of what has always been known as the Uefa Cup where he comes from. "It's nothing special," Liverpool's captain said in his autobiography, "an ugly kid brother compared to the handsome Champions League." Those words were written in the rosy afterglow of victory in Istanbul five summers ago.

It's funny how four years without silverware can make any pot seem like a glittering bauble. What he would have given for a shot at winning Europe's junior tournament. Gerrard said in the aftermath of the defeat in the Vicente Calderon last week that Liverpool would need their "heroes" if they were to prevail at Anfield last night, with Sergio Aguero restored to Atletico's ranks. Rafael Benitez made it quite clear on Wednesday that Gerrard, and Jamie Carragher, were those men.

There were no doubts by the time last evening came around that Gerrard's views on this tournament had changed and why. "This is the biggest game of the season for us. A win would take us closer to a piece of silverware," he wrote in his programme notes.

A player who looks more like a World Cup captain with every weekend that Rio Ferdinand fails to show in a Manchester United jersey has motivating factors way beyond his club, but the consequences of another spring passing by with the trophy cabinet empty had seemed a greater incentive.

Gerrard has kept his counsel across the course of the past three years as the running of his club has come to resemble a circus but there have been times in this dreadful season when you wonder how much more of the chaos and disappointments he can really take.

It's certainly hard to believe that only a year ago he was collecting the Football Writers' Player of the Year award and signing on for another four years at Anfield on £120,000 a week.

A heroic figure he most certainly was as he sought some recompense for all that has gone before these eight months past, billeted as he was back into a deep midfield role though still at the core of most things Liverpool tried from start.

A whipped ball out to Ryan Babel who rolled inside Juan Valera, but lifted a cross over the penalty area. A ferocious corner of low trajectory which David de Gea scrambled clear. Then, advancing to link up with Alberto Aquilani in a partnership which had shown tragically few signs of igniting into life before this, the moment of the first half: six interchanged passes of immaculate precision between him an Aquilani which left Javier Mascherano free to overlap and cross – to no avail.

Gerrard, it was, who deposited the free kick which Daniel Agger deposited into the net seconds after straying offside; and who placed himself before Simao's fierce shot as Atletico, heartened having weathered the early storm, began to counter attack.

There wasn't much sound to match the fury of his contribution. Gerrard is not one of football's screamers and as the first half passed Babel's reflection before the match of what his captain adds seemed prescient. "It is more how he does on the pitch, he is a quiet person in himself, a good personality, so he doesn't have to say much, but players understand what it's about. If you have that, you're an important player." That contribution did not lessen as time ran on and Liverpool laboured to put the game out of sight. Gerrard made the crucial tackle which freed the ball Yossi Benayoun delivered to put Liverpool 2-0 up and ahead in the tie. But not even he could be in the left back slot where Glen Johnson committed another critical error.

Gerrard looked more resigned, than devastated, as he walked off, head held high. If a Europa League trophy might have been the factor to persuade Benitez to stay and fight on in the hope of sunnier financial uplands, then it might also have been the one to cause Gerrard to renew his belief in Liverpool and resist any overtures from those who conclude that a salary like his is modest by today's standards and tell him that greater glories could lie elsewhere. His future looks a little more uncertain today.

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