Gerrard plays kingmaker as Liverpool look to keep pressure on Man City in title race

Gerrard plays kingmaker as Liverpool look to keep pressure on Man City in title race
"This does not slip,” Steven Gerrard told his Liverpool teammates on the afternoon he felt as close as he ever would to lifting a league title with the club that defined his career. It was the spring of 2014. His leadership qualities were at their peak. A television microphone picked up his urgent words – “this does not slip” – in the celebratory huddle after a tough 3-2 victory over Manchester City had kept Liverpool before City in the title race.

That season, Liverpool ended up second, their momentum broken by a defeat to Chelsea. City won the Premier League, and would go on to wait several years into the post-Gerrard era at Anfield before Liverpool again became the chief obstacle to their accumulation of more and more titles.

The next one looks imminent, with City leading the table by three points with three fixtures left, and although Gerrard would never say so, Liverpool’s challenge for the 2021-22 Premier League may have just slipped a little too far. They dropped points at home for the first time in 13 matches on Saturday, drawing 1-1 with Tottenham Hotspur.

Gerrard is in the unfamiliar position, for him, of hoping Liverpool drop more points on Tuesday, just before the six-month anniversary of his appointment as manager of Aston Villa, who host Jurgen Klopp’s side. Safe to report this will have been one of the more reflective weeks of Gerrard’s so far successful first adventure as a manager in English football.

Last Thursday, he saw the club he left for Villa achieve a hugely significant milestone. Glasgow Rangers, guided by Gerrard to last season’s Scottish league title, reached the Europa League final under his successor, Gio Van Bronckhorst. On Tuesday, Gerrard will be plotting to thwart, as opposition coach, the club he played for more than 700 times – the Liverpool he is expected one day to manage.

“My possible successor?,” Klopp was prompted to wonder on Monday as he discussed Gerrard’s Villa. “Of course, I think it's possible. It's not my decision to make.” A more immediate possibility is that Gerrard plays kingmaker in the Premier League title race within the next two weeks. Liverpool visit this evening; the last Villa fixture of the season is at Manchester City, whose manager, Pep Guardiola, also drew a comment from Klopp, reacting to the Spaniard’s statement at the weekend that “everyone in the country supports Liverpool, media and everyone”.

“Maybe he knows more than me,” Klopp smiled, attributing Guardiola’s remark to edginess after City’s dramatic exit from the Champions league at Real Madrid last week. “That,” said Klopp, “was obviously difficult to take.”

Klopp’s chief concern is lifting his own players. He reported that they felt “more disappointed than I do” after the draw with Spurs. Liverpool came back from a goal down, had faced a resolute Tottenham, and the Liverpool manager felt he needed to emphasise the positive aspects of a second recovery from deficit in the space of five days. In the away leg of their Champions League semi-final against Villarreal, Liverpool had trailed 2-0 at half time before winning 3-2.

Were those setbacks the symptoms of a slip in what has been a breathtaking run of form since the turn of the year? “It's not possible to be perfect due to the part of the season we are in now,” said Klopp. “We have to keep going.” He still sees the upsides in many aspects of how Liverpool are playing, not least the high energy – “the counterpress is unbelievable, I’m so proud of that” – despite a fatiguing schedule.

Liverpool are still potentially in reach of an unprecedented clean sweep of trophies, with the League Cup won, an FA Cup final against Chelsea on Saturday, and a Champions League final meeting with Real Madrid two weeks later. “Why should we stop believing?” asks Klopp. “We both have three games to play. My concern is: How can we win our games? We shouldn't add on points before games are played.”

Gerrard would vouch for that. There were three games to play in 2013-2014 when a title-chasing, top-of-the-table Liverpool team welcomed Chelsea to Anfield. A slip and stumble by the captain allowed Demba Ba to break away and score, the first of two unanswered Chelsea goals. Points were dropped in the next game, too, leaving Gerrard heart-broken.
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