Gerrard must take chance to prove world-class ability

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The Independent Online

Having been graced by Eusebio and Luis Figo the Portuguese know a bit about world-class footballers. They also know, having failed to win a major trophy, that such players are thinner on the ground than popular legend would have it. In football "world class" is one of many terms that suffers from over-use and misuse.

Having been graced by Eusebio and Luis Figo the Portuguese know a bit about world-class footballers. They also know, having failed to win a major trophy, that such players are thinner on the ground than popular legend would have it. In football "world class" is one of many terms that suffers from over-use and misuse.

If the strict definition is someone who would represent a World XI few Englishmen would qualify in the past 30 years. Perhaps only Peter Shilton could be confident of gaining prolonged selection though Kevin Keegan, Gary Lineker, Bryan Robson and Paul Gascoigne might have earned brief runs. Kenny Sansom, Tony Adams and Alan Shearer should also have come under consideration while Glenn Hoddle and John Barnes possessed the necessary talent but not the body of achievement.

So we come to the current crop which, according to some observers, has five "world-class" players: David Beckham, Michael Owen, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Sol Campbell. The reality is only Owen conclusively, and Campbell possibly, have produced in a major championship. None has played in a European Cup final, though Scholes would have done but for suspension.

That an insular English game has long had trouble assessing which of its players truly deserve such an appellation was apparent after the national squad completed training yesterday. Jamie Carragher was prevailed upon to discuss Gerrard, who appears on the brink of overtaking Beckham as the team's central figure.

Referring to his recently departed club manager, the Liverpool defender said: "I read Gérard Houllier said: 'he's not world class yet', but who is world class if Stevie's not?"

What Houllier actually said was that Gerrard had the attributes of a world-class player but could not be described as such until he had proven it on the big stage. Having been restricted through injury and inexperience to a brief appearance in the 2000 finals, and missed the 2002 World Cup through injury, Euro 2004 is Gerrard's first opportunity to realise his potential.

He knows it. "I've been waiting a long time for this tournament to start," he said yesterday. "I'd loved to have been at the World Cup but I had to make a big decision and I am benefiting from it now.

"Hopefully, this is my time. I won't be trying to perform too hard. I'll just be relaxed and hopefully perform the way I have for Liverpool. Midfield will be a key area on Sunday and we'll be trying to put our marker down early. It is important we don't let France set the tempo."

On Sunday, in England's opening game, Gerrard will be up against Patrick Vieira, the player he measures himself against and has yet to master.

"Patrick is the best in my opinion and it is nice to be compared to him," said Gerrard. "We are both tall, gangly midfielders who like to get on the ball and dictate play, who try and go forward when the time is right, and can both defend. He's more disciplined at Arsenal than I am with Liverpool but there I have Didi Hamann behind me. With Frank [Lampard] alongside with England I'll have to be more disciplined."

Carragher added: "Vieira and Stevie are the two best centre-midfield players in the world. It will be a great battle watching those two going at it."

It is a contest Carragher hopes to see at close quarters as a stand-in for John Terry. The Chelsea defender's chances of figuring improved yesterday when he kicked a ball in training but England are wary of rushing him back prematurely. If he is not ready to train with the rest of the squad today he is likely to be ruled out of Sunday's game. Ledley King, another potential understudy, has also been doing functional work with the remainder of the back four but too much may have been read into that. It would be a dereliction of duty if England did not give him some training time in the role.

One man who would choose Carragher ahead of King is George Cohen, the 1966 World Cup winning defender. "Sometimes I'm alarmed when I watch Premiership football because I don't think that many defenders have learned their trade in covering the ground and taking up the right positions," he said. "Carragher is an exception. He always strikes me as a real defender, one who goes on the field to defend first."

England will have much defending to do, but Gerrard is thinking only of winning. "It would be a massive marker if we do," he said. "I think it would give the lads the confidence to go on and win the tournament. But it is all right saying that in interviews. We have to put words into action." For Gerrard and England it is time to front up.

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