Gerrard eager to make up for lost time

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The Independent Online

On the last occasion that England played in the quarter-final of a major tournament - against Brazil in the World Cup two years ago this week - Steven Gerrard was home alone on Merseyside, trying to convince himself he was right to have a knee operation and risk missing out on the sort of immortality conferred on the boys of '66. Tonight he will be at the heart of the action, a key figure, as his team try to make up for the disappointment of Shizuoka in the Estadio da Luz.

On the last occasion that England played in the quarter-final of a major tournament - against Brazil in the World Cup two years ago this week - Steven Gerrard was home alone on Merseyside, trying to convince himself he was right to have a knee operation and risk missing out on the sort of immortality conferred on the boys of '66. Tonight he will be at the heart of the action, a key figure, as his team try to make up for the disappointment of Shizuoka in the Estadio da Luz.

"It was mixed feelings," he recalled yesterday of watching England fail so miserably in the second half against Brazil's 10 men. "I was sat at home on my own. I don't really like watching football matches with mates, because they talk all the time and I like to concentrate on the game. I was excited when the goal went in and really thought the lads could go on and win it. I was gutted at the end. The main problem was just in not being there, but it just wasn't to be. I had to think about my career long-term rather than be selfish and I feel as though I'm benefiting from making that decision. I just remember being really down and disappointed and couldn't wait for this tournament to come about."

Steamy heat or not, it is easy to imagine how England might have gained from having a fit Gerrard getting among the Brazilians as they played keep-ball for 45 minutes. On one knee, however, it would not have done anyone much good, and his club and country, as he says, have subsequently reaped the benefit, with 50-plus appearances in each of the last two seasons.

Whether he has made the last of those in Mersey red was not a topic open to discussion yesterday - except, it seems, by Chelsea officials. Suffice to say that anyone thinking of having the name Gerrard printed on a Liverpool shirt would be best advised to wait a while. "There's a lot of speculation about club football for a lot of players in our squad but we're all focused on this game," was his less than resounding denial of escalating transfer rumour.

Any manager tempted in the past to offer serious money for him might first have assumed that neither the player nor his club would be interested in a deal, before finding a nervous chairman blanching at the size of a possible fee and muttering the words "injury-prone". Yet since that operation, he is a new man, who has missed only one competitive international in two years and played a huge part in securing qualification for these finals with a towering performance in the goalless draw in Istanbul last autumn.

That came from the left of midfield, in what was regarded at the time as Sven Goran Eriksson's highly successful diamond formation. Gerrard had proved just about the only living Englishman capable of adapting to it at that level of football. Now he has had to readjust again, sitting in the centre and muttering "discipline, discipline" to himself in deference to the defensive duties inherent in his new role. After two comparatively easy games in that respect against Switzerland and Croatia, it is back to the tough stuff tonight, with Porto's Deco, the man of the match in the Champions' League final - and a Chelsea team-mate next season? - to keep two eyes on.

"As a team we've got to be disciplined and not give the ball away in any silly areas, because Portugal are good on the counter-attack," he said. "The other night it suited my game to burst forward because there were gaps in the Croatian midfield. If that happens again, I'll do it against Portugal. I've had to be disciplined playing with Frank [Lampard], who likes to get forward, but he's very intelligent and knows if I go forward he has to defend."

Having baby-sat his fellow Scouser Wayne Rooney since the latter burst into international football 16 short months ago, Gerrard has now stopped worrying about his young charge. He is more concerned about a Liverpool team-mate who has not scored any of England's last 14 goals.

"I know Michael [Owen] likes to score every game, and when he doesn't score for one or two, he's desperate to. I was trying to set him up against Croatia towards the end, which would have been the icing on the cake, but Michael's goals will come because he's a fantastic player."

Of all the Englishmen, and women, currently in Portugal, there can be few more grateful for the privilege; and unlike most he is in a position to offer his thanks in concrete form: "I like to think I'm a big-game player and this is probably the biggest game of my career. I'm loving every minute of it and there's a feeling that this year it could be ours."

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