Gerrard set to inspire defining performance of the Eriksson era

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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez revealed two of the attributes that have brought him such success in management when he fronted the cameras at Liverpool's Melwood training ground almost one year ago to the day and publicly offered his job to a torn Steven Gerrard; cunning, in that it was a deliberate ploy to lure his captain back from the brink of a £32m move to Stamford Bridge, and foresight, in that the 26-year-old appears destined for the post anyhow.

A cursory glance at the England team sheet for the World Cup quarter-final in the AufSchalke Arena this evening will present few convincing candidates for a managerial career when their playing days have come to an end; fame, fortune and alternative interests suggest a different path will be taken by established names who would otherwise walk into a position of their choosing.

But the exceptions, are notable. Alongside Gary Neville it is Gerrard who looks the most obvious management material in the side to face Portugal and not only on account of a studious obsession with the game that the Anfield captain shares with his Old Trafford counterpart. Their honesty in a football world of media spin, and the impatience for results prevalent in so many professionals at the peak of their sport, also sets them apart.

It was Rio Ferdinand who explained why condemnation of England's performances at this World Cup had not affected the squad in Germany when he revealed after the second round victory over Ecuador: "We do listen to the criticism [from the media] but the criticism we give to ourselves is much worse, believe me."

It is Gerrard, however, who has provided a more revealing insight into what does take place behind the five-star walls of the Schlosshotel Bühlerhöhe. Following the slender and fraught victory in Stuttgart last Sunday, the England midfielder and their leading goalscorer at this tournament left the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion with a subtle warning that the campaign could be over without a distinct improvement against Luiz Felipe Scolari's side. Having had time to reflect on his comment, and gauge the potential impact on team-mates who have yet to follow his lead and replicate their Premiership form on the international stage, he decided to go further.

"We can't play like this and win the World Cup," Gerrard said. "You are now going to come up against sides who won't let you beat them playing like that. This is the time when you need to raise your performance."

This was not some throwaway remark, but a considered view on England's prospects that contained advice on how Eriksson's side can realise their potential. He explained: "We need to pass the ball better and keep the ball better. We are trying to force the play too much at the moment. This is going to be our biggest test and, individually and collectively, we need to raise our game or we could be on the plane home. Most of our games have been at four o'clock and it's difficult to play at a high tempo, and you can't pass the ball because the pitches are so dry. You've got to try and keep it better.

"We have taken criticism from people on board and have tried to improve our performance, but what is important is we have got a great chance of going into the last four and we have got to make the most of it. We deserve to be criticised if we don't. I know we have had our criticism, and rightly so, but it is not too late to start playing well and if we put in a good performance against Portugal and go into the last four we will not be scared of anyone. If you are realistic, it could be even more difficult to win the World Cup in South Africa. This might be our chance for a long time."

The Liverpool figurehead draws confidence from his own club's remarkable success in the 2005 Champions' League for England's World Cup campaign - "It was at the quarter-final stage where we raised our performance and knew we had to get better," he recalls - and the man who will today play his 66th game of a season that began on 13 July last year believes the inclusion of a holding midfielder will continue to encourage his Anfield form in Germany. "It benefits me, it gives me that licence to get forward and to try and make things happen and that's where I feel I produce my best stuff," he admitted. "In a 4-4-2, if I play with Frank [Lampard], I've got to be careful when I go forward because I know Frank is going to go all the time. When I had Michael Carrick in there, I didn't have to worry about the defensive responsibilities and I could get forward, support Wayne [Rooney] and try and make things happen. It excites me, frees me up and is more closer to the role I play for Liverpool."

It will be England's third encounter with Scolari, or rather their third quarter-final in consecutive tournaments, that Gerrard believes will come to define Eriksson and this squad for future generations. "If we were to go out on Saturday, I don't think that would be good enough for the players we have got. We need to go further," he said. "It is not about individuals. It is about what we achieve as a team. There is no point in one of us being a hero and going home in the semi-finals."

By that token it is no surprise what Gerrard believes the legacy of this England team should be. "To be remembered as the second team to win the World Cup," he replied, "simple as that." Spoken like a true manager in the making.

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