Gerrard rolls back years to inspire Reds
Steven Gerrard's days as a box-to-box midfielder were supposed to be over. As the years pass, many a dynamic presence has to restrict himself to ever smaller areas of the pitch. As his 33rd birthday nears, along with the retirement of his brother in arms, Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool captain starts to look an anomaly in a team whose focus is firmly on the future.
Yet as he reprised a role he has occupied many a time over the past decade and a half, as Aston Villa's nemesis, Gerrard wasn't as much a box-to-box player as footballer whose crucial contributions stretched from penalty spot at one end to goal-line at the other. He scored one goal and saved another to keep Liverpool's hopes of European football alive.
His was a performance to explain Brendan Rodgers' willingness to extend Gerrard's contract. "He can play on into his late 30s," the Northern Irishman said. A man for years to come is the footballer for every minute in the current campaign, one of only three outfield Premier League players not to have missed a second of the season. "Look at his fitness levels and running ability," Rodgers added.
Look, too, at his statistics. While his blockbusting runs are rationed, Gerrard remains productive. The decider at Villa Park was his ninth league goal, to accompany nine assists. Had a stretching Brad Guzan not tipped a long-range special away, he would be in double figures.
The match-winning penalty was rather more routine, but his following goal-line clearance seemed better with every look: there was the anticipation to retreat, the agility to wrap his head around Christian Benteke's effort. The backtracking Gerrard ended up in the Liverpool net. More importantly, the ball did not.
"He wasn't even on the post," Rodgers said. "He was marking the space. Nine times out of 10, players let the ball go over their head and don't get back in but that is his professionalism. He is a real inspirational man, a top, top player."
When Liverpool, aided by their authoritative captain, gained control in the midfield, Rodgers argued his skipper was doubling up as a coach. "There were moments within the second half when he was organising the team," he said.
As Liverpool came from behind to win a league game for the first time since 2011, the old-timer and the emerging talents rivalled each other for influence. Philippe Coutinho, shaping up as the best of Rodgers' buys, has brought elegant, evident incision. The stylist has substance, contributing two goals and three assists in five league starts. He twice split the Villa defence with precise passes. Luis Suarez, persistent but profligate, failed to take advantage on the first occasion. Jordan Henderson, sprinting from his own half, displayed more composure when accepting the equaliser.
"Coutinho was magical with the ball at times and Jordan Henderson made a brilliant run," Rodgers added. The rehabilitation of an expensive misfit was capped on his recall. A belatedly popular Henderson's absence was bemoaned when he was benched for the defeat at Southampton 15 days earlier. On his return, he illustrated the benefits of his considerable energy.
Predictably, Suarez was equally indefatigable. His ability to spin on a peso was apparent again when a sharp turn led to a sliding Nathan Baker chopping down the Uruguayan. Gerrard defeated the excellent Brad Guzan from the spot.
Five minutes later, he denied Benteke a second goal and Villa the equaliser that would have elevated them from the relegation zone. "He can sense danger," rued Paul Lambert, who is in a perilous position. His mentor, Martin O'Neill, was sacked on Saturday, shocking the Scot, but Sunderland remain a point ahead of Villa. They led after an excellent first half, seemingly on course for a third successive win
Benteke was brilliant as the bulldozer, Ashley Westwood looking a precocious passer in the midfield. Villa went ahead through the Belgian's ninth goal in 10 games, driven in from 20 yards after Gabriel Agbonlahor met Westwood's pass on his knee.
For Villa, there was a depressing inevitability to what followed. Losing leads and conceding second-half goals have been themes of their season, just as an inability to deal with strapping strikers has been a constant in Liverpool's campaign. Benteke, who struck twice at Anfield in December, is among them; so, too, West Brom's Romelu Lukaku and Oldham's Matt Smith.
While Rodgers praised Carragher and Daniel Agger and despite his apparent interest in a No. 10, whether Hatem Ben Arfa, Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Christian Eriksen, it highlighted why his summer shopping list should be topped by a dominant defender.
So, too, should Villa's but their business depends upon their status. For the fifth time this season, they have dropped into the bottom three. As ever, Lambert pronounced himself unworried. "We don't look like a side that's down there," he said and, going forward, they don't. But the last time they played a league game outside the top flight, Gerrard was seven. Now they have seven games to ensure they are facing him again next season.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard. Seems to have got stronger as the season has got longer. He needed an injection in his heel in the build-up but was a commanding presence in the midfield.
ASTON VILLA VERDICT: Typical Villa. Some of their passing was excellent and they created a series of chances but they remain porous defensively and, whether with Baker's concession of the penalty or a strange, misplaced pass from Barry Bannan to send Suarez clear, they have a habit of gifting opponents chances. Saturday's game at Stoke looks huge for both teams.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: After their inadequate display at Southampton and going a goal down, it was a fine response. Rodgers praised his players for their mentality and character and deflected talk of catching sixth-placed Everton but, like Villa, they looked susceptible at the back. The manager had sacrificed Daniel Sturridge, an unused substitute, to play a third central midfielder, in Henderson, and was vindicated.