Gerrard's heroics highlight Liverpool's weakness

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The Independent Football

History entwines itself around Liverpool like no other club, perhaps because there is so much more of it than elsewhere. Less than an hour after Steven Gerrard's shot had flashed into the Olympiakos net to crown an astonishing fightback, questions were asked about what European night this most nearly resembled.

History entwines itself around Liverpool like no other club, perhaps because there is so much more of it than elsewhere. Less than an hour after Steven Gerrard's shot had flashed into the Olympiakos net to crown an astonishing fightback, questions were asked about what European night this most nearly resembled.

Some mentioned St Etienne to Steve Heighway, now Liverpool's academy director but in 1977 one of the pivots of Bob Paisley's remarkable team. Then, they had lost the first leg of their European Cup quarter-final 1-0, and when Dominique Bathenay equalised at Anfield, Liverpool had 39 minutes to score twice. David Fairclough, who was to revel forever afterwards in the title of "supersub", struck the decisive goal with six minutes to spare.

There were four remaining when Gerrard capped a quite awesome display of leadership with a drive from fully 20 yards to ensure Liverpool succeeded in their quest to score three times in 63 minutes. Heighway, with a wisdom born of experience, pointed out that St Etienne, then French champions and European Cup finalists, were a rather better team than Olympiakos, who have never won a Champions' League fixture outside Greece.

Heighway had other reasons to smile than just the result. For too long serious questions had been asked about precisely what Liverpool's substantial investment in their academy in Kirkby had produced. On Wednesday night, Gerrard may have embraced the glory and the headlines but the victory was set up by goals from two young strikers, Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor, who between them had already snatched victory over Arsenal and ensured Liverpool's place in the League Cup semi-final.

But it was Gerrard who had put himself to the centre of Anfield's stage by his pre-match comments that Liverpool would have to show they could compete with the English and European elite if they were to retain his services in the summer. These are dangerous tactics; crowds do not usually tolerate being held to ransom.

However, like Alan Shearer at Newcastle, Gerrard has the ability to speak directly to his audience, precisely because he is recognisably one of them. "I know I put a lot of pressure on myself because of what I said. I felt I needed a big performance," he reflected. "But I was asked the questions and I wanted to be honest. I always will be. I am not going to go around telling lies about how I feel.

"I am a fan as well and I think the supporters will agree with what I've said . The main point I've made is that I want to be in a Liverpool side challenging for the title and the Champions' League all the time. That's where the club needs to be. I want to be winning things with Liverpool, not somewhere else."

If Liverpool are to win a trophy this season, Gerrard was frank enough to admit on Tuesday that it is likely to be the League or FA Cup rather than the Champions' League or the Premiership. Nevertheless, with tomorrow's derby at Goodison now squarely on the horizon this has been an encouraging fortnight for Rafael Benitez, who against Olympiakos was deprived of his main striker, Djibril Cissé, and key midfielders in Dietmar Hamann and Luis Garcia.

Benitez, however, did not deny that Gerrard remained the key to Liverpool's immediate future. "If we want to win games, important games, we need Steven in the team," he said. "We need his strength, his strong mentality and quality."

Much as Gérard Houllier improved Liverpool, his record in the Champions' League remained relatively disappointing. The one truly memorable night, the victory against Roma when Anfield rose to greet a manager who had brushed sleeves with death, was not built upon. It took Liverpool to a winnable quarter-final with Bayer Leverkusen, which was dramatically lost in the last few minutes. Leverkusen are on a formidable list of potential opponents when the draw for the first knock-out stage is made next week.

In next month's transfer window Benitez has to scrape together enough money to buy a striker to replace Cissé, and probably a centre-half as well. Superbly as Liverpool played on Wednesday night and however much they conjured images of the past, there is a limit to how far can be travelled on individual acts of heroism alone.

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