James Lawton: 'Little Witch' spells big trouble for Gerrard

Liverpool's most accomplished pupil must prove himself against Manchester United's midfield master Veron at Anfield tomorrow
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The Independent Football

Steve Gerrard's somewhat hubristic call to bring on Zinedine Zidane and his Real Madrid team-mates might not have been the most prudent reaction to victory over Borussia Dortmund and an impressive top place in Group B of the Champions' League but, like his club Liverpool, Gerrard has covered a lot of ground in a short time.

Even so, the most beneficial trick for him now might be a more apparent absorption of his England coach Sven Goran Eriksson's advice to respect all of his opponents, and, by the strongest implication, especially those who might be a little further down the road of achievement.

After the draw yesterday, Gerrard will just have to settle for Rivaldo of Barcelona and Francesco Totti of Roma. This surely represents at least a little food for thought for a youngster who is already being spoken of as one of the modern greats, and if such nourishment is insufficient there is shortly before noon tomorrow the prospect of the dish to be provided by the remarkably creative force of Juan Sebastian Veron.

Certainly, if Liverpool against Manchester United carries roughly the same competitive weight as Leeds United's visit to Old Trafford last weekend, there is not much doubt that the battle for midfield supremacy between Gerrard and Veron is set up as the most vital hand-to-hand battle thus far in a tumultuous season.

It may not quite glitter in the mind in the fashion of Zidane and Rivaldo when they collide in La Liga tomorrow, but because of the way they play and the fact that they are in a much truer sense genuine midfield players whose influence at its best touches every corner of the team, the form of Veron and Gerrard is just as vital to their clubs and their own positions as central figures in the hopes of United and Liverpool both home and abroad.

Michael Owen versus Ruud van Nistelrooy is another sumptuous clash of decisive talent, but here surely the jury is in. Gerrard, so hugely lauded after England's extraordinary destruction of Germany in Munich two months ago, undoubtedly has a little re-building to do. The controversy following his shocking tackle on Aston Villa's George Boateng, and a shuddering descent in performance against Greece, may have done little to disrupt the belief that long-term he is indeed potentially a cornerstone of the England team. But nor did they build an ideal platform on which to summon the great Frenchman Zidane to battle.

Gerrard's performance against Greece was disturbing in that in that it was so palpably a submission to the pressure of expectation which built so inexorably around the triumph in Munich. There, Gerrard, like the rest of the England team, sprang back brilliantly from being pushed on his heels by an early German goal. A victory was a long shot. A massacre was a fantasy. Against Greece, the power and the sweep of Gerrard's game was expected to be all-engulfing. But it was Gerrard, and most of his team-mates, who were engulfed. Now, in the most important match of Liverpool's domestic programme, will the wiles and the sheer attacking imagination of Veron envelop Gerrard?

It is the most intriguing question of a superbly poised contest. Gerrard will no doubt be more evident with his big tackles and big passes, but will he be as acute and as persuasive as the man from La Plata? Certainly United would have given much for such subtlety in France this week when a draw against an extremely well-organised Lille team was insufficient to carry the group and avoid two group winners in the second phase.

Veron has quickly established himself as the creative heart of United, even if sometimes his highly imaginative, and high risk, play has brought some frustration. Now in the continued absence of Roy Keane the Argentinian's burden has become all the greater, and for it to be lightened significantly at Anfield Paul Scholes' form needs to enjoy a genuine surge. So, too, does the sheer presence of David Beckham.

Take away a couple of nicely threaded passes, and Beckham's grip on the scruff of the Lille game was flimsy indeed. His dream of playing in central midfield has been accommodated rarely by Sir Alex Ferguson, and most notably in Keane's suspension for the 1999 European Cup final, and, as in the Nou Camp, nothing that happened in Lille is likely have convinced the Old Trafford manager that he has been guilty of mis-casting.

It means that the "Little Witch" Veron must cast some compelling spells around high noon at Anfield. He has the experience and a touch that on English soil has already proved itself to be sublime. For Gerrard the task is to re-invent the performance that was so instrumental in bringing United's second defeat at the hands of Liverpool last season.

It was a beautiful emergence from the trials of coltish injury last April. He blasted a brilliant drive beyond Fabien Barthez, then later played a killing ball which Robbie Fowler converted with his best assassin's flair. That brought Liverpool's first double over United in 22 years, and the headlined suggestion here that "Gerrard is poised on the threshold of greatness''. Maybe he is, but it was also true that at that point in the season United were still involved in the Champions' League and were in a position to nominate their own date for concluding the Premiership race.

Now that the situation has changed somewhat, Gerrard may reflect on the meaning of his work last spring. He was quick to say that he he would not be going on a drinking spree to celebrate his triumph, and that he just hoped his performance had adequately answered his critics. The truth was that he did not have critics then, just an army of volunteer guardian angels.

The critics come when you have reached the threshold of achievement, and they accumulate even more rapidly when you announce you are ready to take on the world's best player. Veron may not claim that title for himself, but the chances are that he will remind Gerrard that, for the moment, Zidane is among the least of his problems.