Steven Gerrard accepts title dream is over
Liverpool captain approaches the end of his career with Champions' League qualification at the height of his expectations
Never mind that the Premier League is only two matches into its marathon. It is rare enough for Liverpool to have their noses in front of Manchester United at any stage, and the chance exists at Anfield this afternoon to press even further ahead.
Even a few years ago, such parochial considerations would have been regarded as unworthy of serious discussion. Yet small mercies are accepted with gratitude these days. Not only is it 23 years since Liverpool were champions of England; they have not finished above their hated red rivals since 2002 or even been in the top five for the past four seasons.
A penny for the thoughts on this sad state of affairs of Bill Shankly, the 100th anniversary of whose birth will be celebrated before today's game. The thoughts of Steven Gerrard, Shankly's type of player, come free and freely and while tinged with early-season optimism they embody the new reality. Essentially, Liverpool are not good enough to win the League.
"I'm 33, I've got two years left on my contract and realistically I'm quite a distance away from winning the League at the moment," he said with characteristic frankness. "I think a lot of things would have to happen within the next 12 months, the next two years."
There are signs of improvement under Brendan Rodgers, Gerrard believes with some justification: "We are making forward steps, we are closing the gap [on the top four] but we are not getting carried away. We don't automatically assume that because we've won two games and had our best start for five years that we are guaranteed a top four place or are favourites to finish there."
That limited ambition has become the target, a "dream" even: "It would be a dream for me to lead this team out again on some nice occasions in the Champions' League at Anfield. I've had some of the best nights of my career in front of the Anfield crowd in the Champions League."
A few years ago, courted by Jose Mourinho's flattery, Gerrard came close to the leaving of Liverpool in search of more glory nights and medals. He stayed put and now finds himself in the difficult position of trying to convince players like Luis Suarez to do the same while acknowledging how far off a title challenge is.
"Luis Suarez is that good, there's only two or three clubs he should leave this football club for if he's taking a step forward. I don't want to disrespect Arsenal, they're a fantastic club, but I don't see it as a step forward for Luis in his career if he wanted to move on.
"I think players have got to recognise that there's a loyalty they need to pay back to clubs at certain times as well. The support the fans have given him has been phenomenal, they haven't once jeered him or tried to push him out or fallen out with him. They absolutely idolise him, so surely he wants to walk out with his head held high and go to a Real Madrid or a Barcelona or a Bayern Munich. He could walk into any side in the world."
Suarez could return from suspension against United – but not until the Capital One Cup tie between the clubs later this month. Wayne Rooney, another subject of much transfer conjecture this summer, will, however, figure this afternoon, which Gerrard would much rather he did not.
"It is bad news for us. Simple as that. I know how good Wayne Rooney is, I've worked with him for a long time, I know him personally and I know how much he loves playing against Liverpool.
"Are Manchester United weaker without him? Yes. I've been in that situation myself when there's speculation about your future. Of course it affects you, there's no doubt about it. It's in every paper, every TV channel you put on, but I think Wayne's experienced enough now to cope with that type of attention.
"He's had attention on him since he was 16 years of age. His head looked all right [against Chelsea] the other night to me. He was the best player on the pitch. I think he'll have a fantastic season for them, which is not good news for everyone else in the Premier League."
There is a similar level of respect for David Moyes, even though like Rooney he has now committed the double sin of association with both Everton and Manchester United. "I've met David many, many times and his knowledge of football is fantastic. With the amount of money he's had available [at Everton], he's done a fantastic job.
"I have no doubt he's going to continue it. I hope Manchester United have a wobble. I can't see it though because they've got too many good players."
Rooney a doubt for Anfield
Wayne Rooney is a doubt for Manchester United after suffering a head injury during training.
The striker left the training ground wearing a bandage.
For David Moyes, fixtures like last Monday's against Chelsea and today's at Liverpool are bringing home to him the difference between managing Manchester United and Everton: not only is he involved in the biggest game of most weekends but he is expected to win them. "Manchester United and Chelsea was a big occasion and now I'm being told how big it is going to Anfield," he said. "It's Manchester City in a couple of weeks and right away there have been an awful lot of big things happening very quickly."
Liverpool v Manchester United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
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