Steven Gerrard has been an inspiration for Liverpool during his 11 years in the first team. Appointed club captain as a 23-year-old, he has taken all of the responsibilities that go with that honour on his shoulders – sometimes literally.
His whirring arms signified that the 2005 Champions League final might not have been all over after all. His 35-yard stunner in Cardiff snatched the FA Cup from West Ham’s grasp in 2006. His constant encouragement and inspiration of others has made teammates feel 10-feet tall. When he speaks, Liverpool fans listen, and so when he opened his mouth after Tuesday night’s dour goalless draw with Wolves, supporters were interested to hear what he had to say. It was pretty predictable. “We are really happy how we defended as a team. I think it is a point gained rather than two lost. We’ve got a couple of home games coming up and, if we take maximum points, I’m sure we’ll edge into that top four. The important thing is that we are playing better. We’ve turned the corner and we are a much more difficult team to beat now. We would probably have lost this game 1-0 a couple of months back, so we are defending a lot better.”
It’s hard to know what else he was supposed to say. The clash at Molineux was a complete non-event from start to finish, as Wolves zipped around the pitch with admirable urgency and tenacity, but didn’t commit enough men forward often enough to win the game. Liverpool were static, a gaping lack of attacking creativity masked by some solid, uncompromising defending. That’s four clean sheets in the last five league games now however, a welcome statistic that shows that at least the defensive part of Liverpool’s game appears to have undergone a marked improvement, even if little else has.
A ‘turning of the corner’ became a favoured phrase during Gerard Houllier’s tenure at Anfield. Liverpool would lurch from one crisis to another back then too, and Houllier’s insistence that all would be right once this mythical corner had been turned took on almost magical qualities. Where this corner was, how the Reds had emerged from it, and where the next one would be was always less clear, and by the end of the interview the Frenchman had usually doubled back on himself and ended up in a cul-de-sac. That Gerrard should echo his former manager in the aftermath of the Wolves draw was understandable, but sadly symptomatic of the campaign. Where was this new corner? The win over Spurs? Victory at Villa Park? Perhaps Reading knocked the Reds so low that the only option was to turn in a different direction? It isn’t clear, and while there have been sporadic signs in Liverpool’s game recently that the old mistakes and misery have disappeared, Gerrard’s decision to evoke the ghost of Houllier was unfortunate.
The skipper had just made a somewhat surprise return to the Reds’ line-up at Wolves, with his 90 minutes one of the few positives to emerge from a cold night in the Midlands. He was off the pace, struggled to link up with Dirk Kuyt, and saw much of the game pass him by, but his presence was welcoming, especially with – as he says – a couple of big home games on the horizon, starting with Owen Coyle’s Bolton at the weekend. The Scot is a talented manager, as we discussed on these pages when Burnley visited Anfield in September, and while it was a shame that he didn’t stick around to steer their fairytale to a happy ending, you can understand his decision to defect to Bolton, a club that apparently means a lot to him.
Rafael Benitez has a perfect record in this fixture. The five times that the Trotters have faced a Benitez team at Anfield, they’ve lost. They haven’t even scored a goal, and it appears as though the new, somewhat agricultural partnership of Martin Skrtel and Sotirios Krygiakos will be the central-defensive duo who will try and stop them doing that this time. You wouldn’t want to come across these two in a dark alley – or in a light one for that matter – but Skrtel has recently shown slight glimpses of an improvement from his patchy early season form, while you can’t fault Krygiakos ever since he came into the team, and scored, at Stoke. Both will face a tough task against Kevin Davies, but if a corner really has been turned then this should be a game that the Reds take three points from. Gerrard wants to steer clear of the Houllier cul-de-sac after all.