One man has the ability to mastermind an English Premier League title for Liverpool – and it isn't Rafa Benitez.
Sunday's 2-0 victory over Chelsea injected a shot of feel-good factor into the Anfield club, which hasn't had such high hopes for a league championship in years. However, if Manchester United is to be overcome and the EPL trophy is to be branded with a new name come May, it will be up to Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard is the pulse behind the team, the heartbeat of the club and the only person with the gravitas to lift his colleagues on to his shoulders in the closing weeks of the campaign. While his off-field activities have drawn some negative publicity, with a post-Christmas arrest for a nightclub fracas, inside Anfield he is revered and respected beyond comparison.
Benitez is a fine coach and an astute tactical thinker. Yet as the season wears on, it is increasingly apparent that he is unwilling and unable to shake off the inherent caution in his structured approach.
That conservativeness has made Liverpool one of the toughest teams to score against in Europe. It has also contributed to some draws that should have been wins – a luxury that a title hopeful can ill afford.
More adventure and impetus is needed because United is not going to surrender this title. Liverpool has to go out and win it.
That is where Gerrard must come in. Benitez won't shy away from his core of two defensive midfielders in Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, so Gerrard must pick up the reigns and surge forward whenever possible.
If it means a risk must be taken, then so be it. Gerrard's mentality rubs off on that of his teammates, and a more positive approach needs to start from the captain.
Without question, Liverpool has enjoyed an outstanding season so far, but for the Reds to come this close and miss out on the title would be a bitter blow.
Much of the season has resembled a soap opera, with the spats between Benitez and owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett over a new contract providing an ongoing subplot. Gerrard needs to turn the tale into an action story – not by defying Benitez's orders but by adding energy and heart to the efficiency and organization that have put the club in place for a shot at Premiership glory.
The First XI
1. Get him an Advil
Another week, another twist in the David Beckham saga. But while the England midfielder is savoring the joys of Serie A during his loan spell at AC Milan, Tim Leiweke, vice president of Los Angeles Galaxy owners AEG, has much to worry about.
Leiweke has repeatedly asserted that Beckham will return to California ahead of the 2009 Major League Soccer season. But after another dominant display which saw the 33-year-old set up two goals in Milan's 3-0 win at Lazio, Beckham was added to the club's UEFA Cup roster and a permanent switch seems ever more likely.
2. Get him a beer
Another week, another dose of sheer brilliance from Lionel Messi. Messi orchestrated a Barcelona comeback at Racing Santander, scoring twice in a 2-1 victory including the winner with a stunning volley.
Not only is Messi the best player in the world right now, but he is also taking the game to a whole new level.
3. Get him some earplugs
Sven-Goran Eriksson's reputation in Mexico continues to take a hammering and his position is decidedly shaky heading into the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Defeat to the United States in Columbus on February 11 could see Eriksson's position become untenable.
4. Four corners
• Could Kleber be the unluckiest man in soccer?
• Will regular first-team action help Jozy Altidore make his mark in Spain?
• Wouldn't you hate to see how El Hadji Diouf would treat someone who wasn't his "man"?
5. Catch a flight to …
Munich. Bayern Munich takes on Borussia Dortmund in a crucial Bundesliga clash next Sunday, with Landon Donovan likely to make his first start for the German giant.
Donovan impressed as a late substitute in Bayern's defeat to Hamburg last Friday and looks desperate to further prove he belongs as he seeks a full transfer.
6. A round of applause for …
Thomas Gravesen. The former Celtic, Everton, Hamburg and Real Madrid midfielder announced his retirement last Tuesday. Many felt Gravesen lacked genuine skill, but in his prime he was a devastating attacking midfielder. Real's decision to use him just in front of the defense took the momentum out of his career and he was never the same again.
7. Get him a Kleenex
Charles N'Zogbia. The Newcastle midfielder has refused to play for manager Joe Kinnear again, after Kinnear twice mispronounced his name during a television interview. N'Zogbia is expected to move to Wigan Athletic.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
Luis Miguel Escalada. Real Salt Lake is interested in acquiring the well-regarded Argentine striker in time for the new MLS season.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
Brian McBride. Fulham wants the Chicago Fire striker to return to the EPL club he served for four years on a short-term loan.
10. Get excited about …
FIFA president Sepp Blatter makes plenty of mistakes, but his announcement that joint bids for the 2018 and 2022 would not be accepted was a positive move. There will be more than enough strong single-country bids that the logistical nightmare posed by hosting in more than one nation need not arise. It is good news for England – with the rival European bids from Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium now seemingly doomed to failure.
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
- Rafa Benitez
- Steven Gerrard
- Manchester United
- English Premier League
- Lionel Messi