Liverpool return still requires leap of imagination with Steven Gerrard focused on Europa League adventure

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Steven Gerrard is now focused on guiding Rangers deep into the latter stages of the Europa League (Getty)
Steven Gerrard is now focused on guiding Rangers deep into the latter stages of the Europa League (Getty)

Jurgen Klopp needs European glory to save the season. For Steven Gerrard it would be the icing on the cake.

Unless there is an extraordinary sequence of events, Liverpool’s best route into the Champions League in the autumn will be to win the competition in May. Gerrard has already ensured that Rangers’ campaign will be remembered as a landmark moment in the club’s history, regardless of how they fare in the Europa League. The 40-year-old has delivered the Scottish Premiership trophy to Ibrox and stopped Celtic winning the league for the tenth time in a row. This is Rangers’ 55th title but this one has even more significance than the rest; it is their first since the club went into administration nine years ago and was demoted to the fourth tier of the game in Scotland.

The two men are at very different points in their careers. Klopp has had a difficult season but during the previous two campaigns his team hit heights that elevated the 53-year-old into the pantheon of Anfield’s greatest managers. Liverpool became European champions for the sixth time and then broke their 30-year-title drought. Gerrard can only dream about matching those exploits.

LONG READ: The evolution of Steven Gerrard as told by those who have witnessed it

The man from Huyton is moving in the right direction, even if it is way too early to suggest that the destination could be a return to Merseyside. It is satisfying to think of the former Liverpool captain as a successor to Klopp but it requires a leap of the imagination.

Thursday’s 1-1 draw against Slavia Prague in the Czech capital was noteworthy, though. As Gerrard made the point afterwards, Slavia beat Leicester City 2-0 at the King Power stadium in the previous round. The Rangers manager was expressing caution before next week’s second leg in Glasgow but advancing to the last eight would underline his increasingly impressive credentials. Leicester are managed by Brendan Rodgers, Gerrard’s former boss at Anfield and Old Firm sparring partner when the Northern Irishman was in charge at Celtic.

Liverpool’s chaotic start to the year has created a sense of insecurity that was unimaginable before Christmas. Klopp is under contract until 2024, when he intends to take a break from the game. The team’s precipitous decline has led some to wonder whether the next three years will unfold as planned. The manager suffered a personal blow when his mother died in January and tragedies like that can cause an individual to reassess their life. The speculation is unfounded. Klopp’s focus is as strong as ever.

Steven Gerrard shares a conversation during the early stages of Jurgen Klopp’s reign at AnfieldGetty
Steven Gerrard shares a conversation during the early stages of Jurgen Klopp’s reign at AnfieldGetty

So is support from Fenway Sports Group (FSG). The owners can be ruthless but they have been in thrall to their manager since their first meeting. Klopp has the sort of energy that appeals to the Americans. They bathe in his charisma as much as the Kop does.

Their feelings about Gerrard are more ambiguous. They bought the club 11 years ago, when his greatness was unquestionable but his playing career was beginning a slow descent. FSG were new to the game and sometimes wondered why Gerrard’s performances did not match his status. He played, according to one of the owners, “English football.” This phrase was not used as a compliment. Concern was expressed about his positional discipline. When Rodgers took charge at Anfield in 2012, the intention was to develop a more sophisticated, cosmopolitan style.

Nevertheless, Gerrard’s brilliance helped propel the team to an unlikely title challenge seven years ago. Rodgers deployed him in a role deep in the midfield, despite being unsure whether he was suited to the position because of his fading pace. Against expectations, Gerrard was magnificent. There could be no complaints about his positional sense. Even so, neither Rodgers nor FSG put up much of a fight to keep him at Anfield when he departed for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2015.

Rodgers followed him out the exit door three months into the next season. But Gerrard remained on FSG’s mind. They were desperate to find a replacement for him, a dynamic goalscoring midfielder who had similar attributes. That was impossible. You cannot replicate a one-off. For a long time Jordan Henderson was derided for not matching up to his predecessor as captain. Ironically, Klopp’s success has been built around a midfield that is the antithesis of Gerrard with Henderson as its leading man.

Klopp has been the easiest manager FSG have had to deal with. Rodgers was an awkward customer and internal communications used the phrase “Brendan’s thrown us under a bus” on a number of occasions.

Dealing with club legends brings its own problems. Kenny Dalglish never undermined his employers in public but the Scot was acutely aware not only of his own status but of the inexperience of the owners. FSG like and admire the 70-year-old and came to understand his importance to the club in the aftermath of sacking him but they did not enjoy dealing with him as manager. They would think long and hard about employing another talismanic figure.

Gerrard has got plenty of time to convince them that they have no choice. Unless an unforeseen meltdown of epic proportions occurs, Klopp will see out his contract.

The Rangers manager has surrounded himself with good assistants and has proved a good man-manager and decision-maker. If he continues with his progress, a conversation about returning to Anfield can begin in earnest in a couple of years’ time. For now, Gerrard is more concerned with advancing in Europe.