Gerrard heads for final frontier in quest to join Liverpool pantheon

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The Independent Football

There is no pressure like the weight of history and Steven Gerrard has come to understand the expectations of Liverpool Football Club better than any other player who will make his way on to the pitch in the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in a red shirt tonight. He has said this week that he can imagine lifting the European Cup, can imagine assuming his place in Anfield's pantheon, but there will be no more daunting investiture than the task that faces him against Milan.

There is no pressure like the weight of history and Steven Gerrard has come to understand the expectations of Liverpool Football Club better than any other player who will make his way on to the pitch in the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in a red shirt tonight. He has said this week that he can imagine lifting the European Cup, can imagine assuming his place in Anfield's pantheon, but there will be no more daunting investiture than the task that faces him against Milan.

The Liverpool captain has shouldered the responsibility for his club's reputation for the last three seasons at least and the ambitions he revealed this week will not fail to evoke a tremor of emotion in every Anfield devotee. "I've seen the pictures of Liverpool players with that great big cup held high above their heads and the look on their faces," Gerrard said. "I want the same - I want Liverpool to have that picture on the wall of me with that cup above my head."

That Liverpool's fifth European Cup could be even more significant than those that preceded it between 1977 and 1984 was a theory that appealed to Gerrard who pointed out that his predecessors had always enjoyed the "favourites" status in the past. "We always used to be the strongest team in the competition and this time we are the underdogs," he said. "We have been all the way [from the qualifiers] so to win it in these circumstances would be unbelievable - the proudest moment of my life."

Not to mention the least expected. When Rafael Benitez took the stage at the stadium yesterday, he passed within a foot of the great silver pot and even the man who has buried his emotions deep since he arrived on Merseyside seemed to blanche at the sight of it. The pace of the change he has wrought at Liverpool will culminate tonight when, without even having won a League title for 15 years, they compete for the one trophy Anfield considers more sacred than any other.

The past at Liverpool is easy to comprehend. The pre-eminence of the late Seventies and Eighties, Kevin Keegan with his left eye blackened holding the trophy in 1977, Alan Kennedy's winning penalty in Rome seven years later. It is the present that is much harder to understand: how a club that has been searching for its identity for 15 years can, without consolidating any domestic supremacy, fast-forward through its development and stand once more on the brink of conquering Europe.

These are not present concerns, however, for Benitez. The 45-year-old has plotted and planned to eliminate Juventus and Chelsea and last night it seemed he might have one more trick to play. Harry Kewell's season has dwindled to the

point of irrelevance but it could be the Australian winger who is used behind the lone striker Djibril Cissé in a surprise tactical switch.

The change, which would come at the expense of Dietmar Hamann, is far from certain in a Liverpool camp that is much better sealed against leaks since Benitez arrived - but it would be typical of the man. He has found a new role for Gerrard this season, in behind the lone striker, and it now seems that he will sacrifice Milan Baros for the in-form Cissé. Benitez said yesterday: "My last words to the players will be 'Enjoy the game, try to do your jobs. You know what to do: do it.' Simple."

It could stand as a lesson for their season because, when Liverpool's players have chosen to perform the strict roles asked of them by Benitez they have achieved great things. The Liverpool manager was repeatedly reminded yesterday that his team's performances have failed at times to enrapture their audiences. "When people talk about my team I tell them to watch some videos," Benitez said, "because we have played really well in the Champions' League".

Against Chelsea and Juventus in previous rounds, there is no doubt of that. And at home to Monaco and Olympiakos the heart soared but those who saw them play away in those two first-round ties will struggle to recall anything of significance from Benitez's team. It is that which will gnaw at Carlo Ancelotti as the Milan coach prepares his side for a final which they seemed so certain to win one month ago until their season, and their pursuit of the Scudetto, crumbled in four games without a win.

That would seem like a detail to most coaches who can speak before a European Cup final, as Ancelotti did yesterday, flanked by two players who have seven titles between them. One look into the black-rimmed eyes of Paolo Maldini is enough to tell you that the 36-year-old left-back is as focused on his seventh European Cup final as for his first 16 years ago.

"I am convinced we are going to perform," he said, "and we have a better team than when we won it two years ago."

At the other side of Ancelotti was Clarence Seedorf, the 29-year-old Dutch midfielder, who added that although this was his fourth European Cup final he was "still hungry" for success. There are no doubts over Milan's daunting line-up, their back four with a combined age of 107, Hernan Crespo and Andrei Shev-chenko in attack with the Brazilian Kaka in support.

"Them Scousers" read the first banner to be unfurled around Taksim Square and by tonight the estimated 35,000 travelling Liverpool fans - only 20,000 are thought to have tickets - will have colonised the Ataturk Olympic Stadium. Alan Hansen, a veteran of three European Cup finals always says that when his Liverpool team did the victory lap for their last League title in 1990 he sensed Anfield had become expectant of success, complacent even. Gerrard belongs to a new generation, and he, above all, knows it will not feel like that tonight.

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