In recent times, it has always been easy to identify when and where Liverpool’s big matches were.
There were the famed European nights, the titanic cup clashes in semi-finals or finals, the league meetings with rivals from across the city or the north west of England and the games which would have a huge bearing in Champions League qualification.
And whenever Liverpool played in those matches, their fans would always turn to one man to provide leadership, inspiration and occasionally a 30-yard thunderbolt in stoppage time.
Steven Gerrard has always been the Reds’ man for the big occasion; the only player to have scored goals in Champions League, Uefa Cup, FA Cup and League Cup finals, winning them all.
But as this remarkable Liverpool Premier League title challenge enters the home straight, even Gerrard is now in uncharted territory. Suddenly every game is a big game, every point is a vital one and, as witnessed at Anfield last night, everyone’s nerves get shredded to the limit and beyond.
Because not even Gerrard, with his 16 seasons in the first team, will have witnessed and heard Anfield in the manner that it was on Wednesday against Sunderland, at least not for a league fixture anyway.
In 2008/09—the campaign decreed by many to have been the one in which Liverpool should have ended their Premier League title drought—most of the key moments came away from home.
There was the loss at Middlesbrough in late February which led many to declare the Reds out of the title picture, Yossi Benayoun’s last-minute winner at Fulham in early April which suddenly put them back into it, and then the 4-1 win over leaders Manchester United at Old Trafford, which got them even closer to the summit. Many remember the 4-4 draw with Arsenal at Anfield as a crucial game in the race, but most of the damage had already been done by then.
Gerrard and the Reds were always playing catch-up that season, but in this one they have been right in the thick of it since day one. They can’t afford to let nerves get the better of them now.
But those nerves had well and truly sunk in by the 39th minute on Wednesday, as Sunderland had steadfastly refused to do what the vast majority of teams visiting Anfield have done all season—namely roll over and let the hosts swarm all over them with their exhilarating attacking play.
John O’Shea and Wes Brown were using all of their experience to marshal the visiting defence—albeit whilst keeping an eye on the third member of their trio, the hapless Santiago Vergini—whilst Lee Cattermole and Liam Bridcutt worked admirably ahead of them. Anxiety was apparent all around Anfield.
But Gerrard specialises in taking that anxiety away.
His pinpoint free-kick lifted the roof off the stadium and acted as a release for the tension. Not so much a Jack in the Box, but a Steven from just outside it.
That nervousness would return as Ki Sung-Yeung headed Sunderland back into the game at 2-1, but after that Gerrard could be seen cajoling more effort out of his team-mates.
One huge heave of the ball up the touchline towards Raheem Sterling was met with loud cheers, whilst Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel received an old-fashioned ear-bashing from their skipper following the late header that O’Shea sent wide. It produced a deafening response from the home crowd.
In a campaign which started with many wondering if Gerrard was on the downward spiral—with some calling for him to be kept out of the team as recently as December following the stunning 5-0 win at Tottenham which he missed through injury—the skipper is now vitally important for his side in the title run-in.
The Reds must remain calm, as Brendan Rodgers said on Wednesday night (ESPN), but in the white-knuckle ride that has been this season that will be easier said than done. Through it all, Gerrard remains the comfort blanket for the frightening moments.
Which is why it is so vital that the captain gets through the next three matches without picking up his 10th yellow card of the season, thereby picking up a two-game suspension.
Of course Liverpool would be able to call upon Lucas Leiva to slot into Gerrard’s midfield role, with the recent displays of Joe Allen and the season-long performances from Jordan Henderson ensuring that there will be more-than-enough quality in the centre of the pitch to match anyone, but the worry must be that without Gerrard the fear factor could envelop Anfield even more than it did on Wednesday.
“Keep Calm and Carry On” might be a phrase which has become noticeably overused in recent years, but in both Gerrard and Liverpool’s case it represents exactly what they need to do now.
Because the alternative—getting nervous and slipping up—simply won’t bear thinking about for the captain, a man who prides himself on riding to Liverpool’s rescue.