Anyone who has played football at the highest level for a decade or more has inevitably experienced setbacks, and Steven Gerrard is no exception.
The trouble with being a Liverpool player is that every single season there comes a point when it is necessary to accept that the real target – winning the Premier League – is going to be missed again. From time to time there have been consolations in various cups, above all with the gloriously unlikely Istanbul triumph; but come May that will have been five years ago, and in their heart of hearts everyone associated with Liverpool knows that even picking up the Europa League bauble in five months' time would be small consolation.
So, as he trooped out of Anfield on Wednesday night after exiting the Champions' League with a worst-ever return of seven points, and sitting seventh in the domestic League, it was not surprising that the club captain's brow looked even more deeply furrowed than normal. Seeking the psychological boost of a victory over Fiorentina to take into today's game against Arsenal, Liverpool had instead been condemned to suffer a second successive home defeat for the first time in their 45 years of European football.
It was to Gerrard's credit that he was not only prepared to stand and deliver a rallying cry, but that there was no bleating about bad luck or injuries. He even knocked back the sympathetic suggestion that it was "puzzling" why a squad of Liverpool's quality should be so far behind the old rivals of Chelsea and Manchester United. "It's not puzzling at all, the League never lies and we're in the position we're in for a reason," he said. "That tells me we haven't been good enough and consistent enough."
Merely finishing in the top four has become the priority, he admitted: "Even though we missed out [on the title] last year, it gave us a real confidence and belief coming into this season that we could fight all the way and, unfortunately, we find ourselves outside of the top-four positions and we need to put that right." Therefore every game against other contenders is particularly important, and Gerrard knows the chance to move within one point of Arsenal cannot be spurned.
"It's a massive game," he said, "and because of the start to the season we've had, every game's now a massive game, a cup final if you like. We need to try to get back into a top-four position as soon as possible. Playing against Arsenal is very difficult, Arsenal are one of the best teams in Europe for passing the ball very quickly and moving the ball about, so we have to get about them, press them very high up and force them to make mistakes.
"If we stand off them and let them play, they'll kill us. It'd be nice if we can get Fernando [Torres] in from the start and we can get about Arsenal, because I'm sure they'll fear us as much as we fear them."
Torres should be ready. The other senior players who missed Wednesday's game also need to return, for the evidence was that youngsters such as right-back Stephen Darby are not at the same level as their counterparts at Arsenal, several of whom shone on the same night in Athens.
The extraordinary 4-4 draw between the teams last April also came immediately after Liverpool's elimination from the Champions' League, when they recovered to finish the season with a flurry of goals and wins, pushing the champions United to the line.
Yet summer transfer dealing proved unprofitable, in every sense, the loss of Xabi Alonso's passing from midfield exacerbated by injury to his replacement Alberto Aquilani, whose starting berth on Wednesday was his first since joining the club. He produced some neat touches, but on his manager Rafa Benitez's admission he needs to improve his tackling and is a different player to Alonso. Playing a little further forward, the Italian will change the balance of the side, too.
If not aware of it already, he will soon learn that the current straits are not where Liverpool expect to be stranded. When Graeme Souness spoke in midweek about potential "meltdown", he was not referring to the Copenhagen summit; things are that serious. "It's no time to hide, we need to get out there and roll our sleeves up and get on with it," Gerrard said. "We're the players responsible for where we are in the League. We've all got to get this football club back where it belongs."Reuse content