Liverpool 1 Chelsea 1 comment: Steven Gerrard's ghostly play was a sign of impending loss

Gerrard was a link in this machine tonight, not its engine

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The Independent Online

The banner said “Get Gerrard to Wembley” and every utterance by and about him tonight seemed to resonate with the sense that his time is running out. “Opportunities to get to a cup final at Wembley don’t come along every season. I’ve been in the game long enough to know that,” Steven Gerrard wrote in his programme notes, heavy with meaning. Just the two more shots at Wembley.

If Jose Mourinho really intended to quell the chants about him by asking that his supporters desist from them then it was a lost battle. The game hadn’t even started under the snowflakes which drifted on the night air before the reminders of his legendary slip struck up, drowned out by Liverpool’s own chorus, in what was initially such a vocal contest that you wondered if there was a League Cup semi-final for Gerrard to add his imprint to at all.

There was and he did. It’s a measure of how Brendan Rodgers has laboured to find the role in which the captain can be a danger that the player being taunted for a defender’s error last April was in Liverpool’s front line for what may be his last clash in anger with this inveterate enemy.

What he provided was something incalculably brighter and more technical than an old stager’s last stand. Gerrard might be remembered as a mud-scarred gladiator on big nights like this but tonight he was instead at the nexus of quick, neat geometrical football which meant that Liverpool could take courage and heart at half-time, despite processing in a goal down.

 

Philippe Coutinho, a beautifully poised, balanced and aware player, was the man who looked most likely to break through for Liverpool, and Gerrard has played with him for long enough now to intuit his movements. The two, with Raheem Sterling, played the kind of fast, first-touch football that Rodgers was talking about when he arrived here with his Catalunian philosophies.

Jordan Henderson, a player Rodgers has encouraged to get forward more, joined in too. Whatever the naysayers have to say about Liverpool’s fall from where they stood when they faced Mourinho here last April, the Englishman’s development has been testament to what this Liverpool manager can bring out in a player.

Gerrard was a link in this machine, not its engine, and there was more than enough to muffle the taunts. His backheel which sent a Henderson pass on the left touchline into open play, taking Nemanja Matic and John Terry out of the picture at a stroke, was memorable. Matic, on Gerrard’s shoulder, has quelled many players who have sought to drop in behind a striker this season and Chelsea generally only lose when he is missing. But Gerrard, ghostly quiet, was doing the drifting around behind Matic and that seemed to unsettle the Serbian.

Sterling1.jpg
Raheem Sterling celebrates his equaliser

There were strikes from Gerrard, too: a 20-yard pass which Gary Cahill could only get enough connection on to send behind him into Sterling’s path, and momentary danger, early on. Then, on a quarter of an hour, a 40-yard strike that sent Thibaut Courtois leaping to tilt over the bar with the fingertips of his right hand. And on the half-hour, a Gerrard free-kick from the left that Courtois punched out two-handed.

The question was always whether Liverpool had a goal or two in them. Rodgers still lacks a world-class defender, or one who can command the area. It only took the characteristic backline error to give Chelsea a lead and Liverpool a mountain to climb.

They would not be moved, though. For a change, the manager’s pre-talk of his team’s growth and developing belief seemed like more than propaganda. It was the best we have seen from Liverpool since the 3-0 win at Tottenham in late August. The equaliser which confirmed it was justified – something of the highest order from Sterling, one of a very select group who have left Matic in their wake this season, as he did here.

And moments before that, when Sterling had allowed Coutinho’s cutback to run to Gerrard, the captain applied his right instep to a ball which he placed with utmost studiousness against the base of the left-hand post, dropping to his haunches as it flew away.

In the blink of an eye his night was over. There was no hint of anguish when his number was raised and nothing like a sign of discontent, though to see Gerrard slip away early from what may be one of his last big Anfield nights, with all the intent that such an occasion was generating in him, was curious.

The options for change within this team with its need for the wing-backs is limited and Gerrard’s replacement – Adam Lallana - needed only minutes to provide his own threat. But Rodgers’ substitutions puzzle at times. You fancied that if any man could help Liverpool to the goal that would make next Tuesday’s replay something to concern Chelsea far more, it was he.

Liverpool did not regain their fluidity. They have much work still to do. Gerrard’s night confirms what always seemed likely when he announced he would be gone in June: that he will be remembered not as a shadow of his former self but as a giant, of whom this stadium will only wish they could have seen a season more.

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