Having been at the centre of more Anfield crises than he would care to imagine over 16 years, Steven Gerrard was in no mood to compromise as he stood in the tunnel at the Goldsands Stadium on Wednesday night and laid out the situation as he saw it for the benefit of his team-mates.
The Capital One Cup quarter-final victory over Bournemouth had been a relief, even given relatively low-key opposition, and for the first time in a while the cloud that has languished over Gerrard lifted. He has been here before many times with his club, mostly at the end of managerial eras: the final days in charge for Gérard Houllier, Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson notable among them, when life looked bleak indeed.
This time, however, Liverpool are certain that there will be no managerial defenestration and Gerrard did not look like a man in the midst of a bout of soul-searching. He said simply that it was time to “roll your sleeves up and fight for the club”, and that against Arsenal on Sunday would be the place to do it. The last time Arsène Wenger’s team came to Anfield they were cut down by four goals in 20 minutes and left Liverpool no longer leaders of the Premier League.
As for the game on Sunday, with five points and five places between the two teams, Gerrard was blunt. The victory over Bournemouth had given them some “breathing space” but he said: “Everyone knows if we perform back to how we have done of late, against Arsenal, we’ll get beat.”
The trip to the Goldsands Stadium turned out to be exactly what Liverpool needed rather than the bear-trap their supporters had feared. There was very little in the way of hostility – although the home fans jeered Gerrard for reasons that were unclear – and Eddie Howe’s side stood off Liverpool to the extent that they were able to find their passing range unencumbered by the kind of cup-tie pressure you might expect.
It will be different against Arsenal, who are fresh from putting four past Newcastle, although Wenger’s team have won only twice away from home in the league this season. Aside from last season, Arsenal’s recent league record at Anfield is good. The 5-1 defeat was the first victory for Liverpool in that home league fixture in seven seasons and there is no doubting that Sunday’s game is pivotal for both sides as they try to stay in touch with the top three.
Gerrard said that at Old Trafford on Sunday, Liverpool had played well but been punished for mistakes while the win over Bournemouth was “probably as close as we’ve come to last season’s standards”. He added: “But we need to keep going, keep winning. We have a tough game at the weekend against Arsenal and then we have a run of fixtures which are a bit more kind to us. If we can get a big result against Arsenal and build on this, I think we can turn it around.”
It will be the battle of the Premier League’s two nearly-teams, both led by managers whose shortcomings on the defensive side of the game have been ruthlessly exposed at times this season. “A bit of a roller-coaster” was how Gerrard described the last four months, although it is easier to remember the descents rather than the upward trajectories.
“I know when I don’t play well,” he said. “I think every individual does here. But I think collectively it has been tough. It’s been tough to perform because we haven’t played well as a team and so there have been tough days of late. But if we keep fighting, keep performing, roll your sleeves up, keep giving everything you’ve got, I’m sure the good days are not too far away.”
The big question remains, however, whether Liverpool can reach the top four again this season. From Gerrard there were no grandiose promises, not with their best striker currently 3,000 miles away in Boston trying to overcome the latest in a series of injuries to his thigh. They are only seven points behind West Ham, the unlikely fourth-placed team.
“It’s a tough question. It’s going to be tough,” he said. “We knew it was going to be tough the moment we lost Luis [Suarez] and the injuries we’ve had to Daniel [Sturridge] of late. Everyone in the country knows the job to get in the top four becomes that awful lot harder. But we’ll keep fighting until the end and if people are going to write us off, we can’t control it. All I can control is what goes on in the dressing room and try to help other players to perform. But certainly, on [the Bournemouth] performance, there’s still a chance.”
There was also the customary public appeal to Raheem Sterling to sign a new contract at Anfield. The 20-year-old was exceptional leading the line against Bournemouth and ended the 17-game goal drought that has been a significant contributory factor to the problems Rodgers’ team have encountered this season. “It’s the haircut, isn’t it?” said Gerrard. “No one recognised him when he came in. He knocked about 10 years off with that haircut.
“He’s great to watch, great to play with, he’s got that pace. When you look up he’s always giving you an option and that’s what I’ve thrived on throughout my career at Liverpool with the likes of [Fernando] Torres, [Michael] Owen. There’s nothing better as a midfielder when you look up and see pace running in behind. Hopefully it will continue because it stretches teams and creates chances.
“I think he can play anywhere along the front, he’s that intelligent. He’s got to keep learning, he’s got to keep wanting it. I hope he signs a new contract at the club because I think this club is perfect for him, certainly for the next few years.
“He’s going to play most weeks, the fans love him here. He can progress here and become a top, top player here, so I hope the people around him give him the right advice because he should stay here.”
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