It wasn't a desperate performance from Steven Gerrard but with his head swathed in bandages, and his assignment out on the left requiring him to frequently scuffle against some quick and feisty Mexican ring-craft, nor was he always a picture of serenity. But when did you last see Gerrard striding lightly and looking like a man on top of a football destiny that for so long marked him down as one of the world's most commanding midfielders?
Not since Liverpool made their spectacular but utterly misleading statement that they were at last live Premier League title challengers last spring. Since then it has been uphill, often unrewarding work for the man who in more exuberant days was referred to by an awe-struck England coach Steve McClaren simply as "Stevie G". Here last night, though, Stevie G was required to carry a little more gravitas.
He did it splendidly and with a conviction that put flesh on the bones of his weekend statement that he saw the coming World Cup as maybe his last chance to make a significant impact on the international stage.
The thrust, and the composure of his work, was particularly impressive in the second half when he took over the captaincy from Rio Ferdinand. By then he had put aside the bandage applied to a head wound which came with a clash of heads and moved into the centre of midfield.
It was the time when Gerrard looked a front-rank performer again, quick and optimistic and perfectly equipped for the dynamic intervention which has always been his most compelling stock in trade.
On several occasions he brilliantly revived his chemistry with Wayne Rooney, once moving sleekly on to a return ball before being knocked down by a stretching Mexican defender on the edge of the box. Gerrard stroked the resulting free kick just a foot or so beyond a post, which was a shame for a man so plainly intent on serving notice that his days on the margin of major football events are about to banished – at least for the South African summer.
Perhaps the swiftly rising speculation that Jose Mourinho is reserving a role for him in the revitalisation of Real Madrid also had an invigorating effect on Gerrard – and certainly his England coach Fabio Capello must have been grateful Gerrard was stimulated enough to pull England back from the possibility of a dispiriting, even embarrassing humiliation by a Mexico who were so inept in early World Cup qualifying England's former coach Sven Goran Eriksson paid with his job. The Swede, now restored to the big show with Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast, is of course a master of the art of resurrection – and there were moments last night when Gerrard, who will be 30 on Sunday, was providing his own version of the procedure. As a footballer of authority and significant impact, that was.
Even before Capello moved him into the centre, Gerrard was plainly intent on making a major impact, something which he accomplished in the 34th minute when he took a short corner, accepted the return pass from James Milner and rampaged into open space. His cross was powerful and brilliantly placed, Rooney nodded it on and Peter Crouch got the ball over the line, not classically but with a flair for being in the right place at the right time, which no doubt did no harm at all to his hopes of leap-frogging Emile Heskey in the race to partner Rooney, who at times was only mildly majestic last night.
Gerrard has of course long been a fixture in Capello's plans but last night he won back a more vibranty status. It was the one of a player who seemed hell-bent on living on something more than mere reputation. There have been times at Anfield recently when such body language seemed to belong in another, more exuberant phase of Gerrard's life. Heaven knows there has been reason enough for this – and also, perhaps, for Gerrard to reflect on the damage that old agonising about whether he should stay loyal to his roots at Anfield or strike out for new horizons may have done to his chances of building serious achievement in an England shirt.
The other day he was saying that two years of agonising over the advances of Mourinho when he was at Chelsea may have cost him too many opportunities to cement his place at the top of the game. Last night, though, it seemed that Steven Gerrard had put away such musings and regrets. Last night he was playing for what was left of his future as one of the major performers in world football. The best of news was that it is still plainly one filled with the highest possibilities.
How did the turf behave last night?
0 mins Within the first 20 seconds, Rafael Marquez's pass to right-back Efrain Juarez bobbles off the pitch.
2 mins Flowing Mexican counter-attack is slowed down by the turf.
10 mins Goalkeeper Rob Green hesitant in controlling back pass from Glen Johnson.
28 mins Ball bounces oddly over Leighton Baines for throw-in.
35 mins Through ball slightly sits up for Carlos Vela to strike straight at Green.
74 mins Ball bobbles up just as Andres Guardado crosses, and weak effort is easily cleared.