Above the entrance to the elderly, somewhat dilapidated arena where Liverpool’s Champions League fate may be decided is a quote from a German poet. “The true worth of a man,” said Friedrich Schiller, “is only seen on the field of sport.”
Until now the worth of the man who led his team on to the plane at John Lennon Airport was never in question. Steven Gerrard’s place as one of the Anfield immortals has long been secure.
However, in the wake of Liverpool’s fourth successive defeat, the humbling by Crystal Palace in the south London rain, his place in the Liverpool team has been open to fierce debate. There was heavy criticism of Gerrard’s performance in that game and many of those supporters who have backed him for a decade and a half would prefer him not to start against Ludogorets Razgrad, once the makeweights of this group but who, after the debacle at Selhurst Park, look a formidable prospect here in the Bulgarian capital.
Gerrard’s close friend, Jamie Carragher, would want him to play but he suggested that the experiment of refashioning the 34-year-old as a defensive midfielder had not worked. “He is not Javier Mascherano, he is not Didi Hamann,” said the former Anfield defender. Earlier, he had remarked that Liverpool had looked “mentally and physically weak”.
Brendan Rodgers accepted that Carragher, as a media pundit, is paid to give strong opinions but denied the charge of weakness. “The squad has resilience,” he said. “It showed that last season.”
Rodgers is not a manager who takes his cue from comments made in the Sky Sports studio but on this one occasion the signs are that he may have agreed with Carragher.
This is an occasion where the old Steven Gerrard would be seen at his best – Liverpool’s backs jammed against a wall, knowing only victory would realistically do. Tomorrow night, Gerrard is likely to revert to his old position in the heart of the Liverpool midfield, with Lucas Leiva protecting a back four, in which Kolo Touré, who played superbly in the 1-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, will probably start the game.
Rodgers is a man at his best painting the big picture, talking of the philosophy, style and structure of a team. His focus has now narrowed to 90 minutes of football in an old Eastern European stadium with open stands, old-fashioned floodlights and an athletics track. The Vasil Levski National Stadium is not a stylish venue and this will not be a place for stylish football. It is about the win, no more, no less.
“We have to go and stand up, show we can get a result and tough it out,” Rodgers said. “The criticism comes and, whether it is deserved or not, you won’t like it as a player. I have got a team full of characters, courageous players, a team that is committed but low in confidence. There may be no way back if we lose. It does raise the stakes because we want to qualify for the knockout phase. We always felt that this game and the Basel game would be the critical ones for us, and nothing has changed.”
For Rickie Lambert, who grew up weaned on tales of Liverpool’s European heroics, this is a moment he has waited for all his life, the chance to lead his team’s attack in the Champions League. He knows, too, that at the age of 32, the opportunity might not come again.
“We are desperate to get the game underway,” he said. “It was a very low atmosphere on Sunday and this match gives us a chance straight away to rectify that. We lost the individual battles at Crystal Palace and that is not good enough for a Liverpool team.
“First and foremost it is about the performance – win or lose we have to put in a performance with the stamp of a Liverpool team.”
Lambert professed himself outraged by some of the comments made about the man who will captain his side here.
“I have seen some of the stuff that has been written about Stevie and I find it shocking, given what he has done for the club,” he said. “It is up to us other players to stand up for him if he has a bad game. He leads by example every time he walks through the dressing-room door.”Reuse content