Liverpool exited the Champions League with a whimper at the hands of Real Madrid on Wednesday night.
“I don’t want to wake up tomorrow morning in the UEFA Cup.”
Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard would defiantly drop such a sound bite on the eve of the Reds’ crucial Champions League group-stage clash with Olympiakos back in 2004. Also admitting at the pre-match press conference that he would have no choice but to consider his future if Rafa Benitez’s side failed to qualify for Europe’s elite competition, it was the aforementioned quote that dominated the back pages the following morning.
Needing to win by two goals against the Greeks to qualify for the knockout stages at their expense, it seemed Gerrard’s words would come back to bite him as Liverpool trailed 1-0 at half-time to a Rivaldo free-kick. Yet the Reds’ talismanic captain would grab the game by the scruff of the neck as he scored his most iconic goal late on to clinch the needed 3-1 victory.
It was neither the first nor the last time that the midfielder stepped up to drag his team over the line. Istanbul 2005 and Cardiff 2006 immediately come to mind as Liverpool famously came from behind in the most dramatic of manners to lift both the Champions League and FA Cup.
Yet his Reds career was littered with such ‘Roy of the Rovers’ examples. Whenever Liverpool needed him, regardless of the occasion, Gerrard, often a class above those surrounding him, delivered.
What Jurgen Klopp’s current side would do for such a player now. Granted, the German’s Liverpool team has been the greatest of the Premier League era. Winning every major honour going, including that elusive first league title since 1990, Gerrard knows full well he was born a generation too early as he reflects on what came to pass after he hung up his boots.
But now that side is at the end of its cycle, ageing and stuck in transition. While last year the Reds nearly won an unprecedented quadruple, ultimately they fell just short come the end of the season.
They would win a domestic cup double, but failed to score past Chelsea at Wembley on either occasion as penalties decided the destination of both the League Cup and the FA Cup.
In a decisive Premier League final day, Man City recovered from 2-0 down against Aston Villa to clinch victory and win the title. By the time Liverpool took the lead against Wolves in their own final game, Pep Guardiola’s men had already turned their own match around. Despite the opportunity being there, at no point did the Reds even graze the trophy as they missed out by just one point.
And then there was Paris as they failed to find a way past Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Losing 1-0, they were left goalless in a final and lacking answers once again.
This was still a side littered with Liverpool legends who have won every major honour going. Collectively, they have been brilliant. But individually, no-one could step forward to make that decisive impact that Gerrard repeatedly delivered when his side needed it most.
Maybe we took such a trait for granted, but as the Reds locked horns with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night they were in dire need of a new miracle-maker. 5-2 down on aggregate after being humbled at Anfield, they never looked like making back such a deficit in Spain.
Liverpool would sting Thibaut Courtois’ gloves more than once, as they had done in Paris, but still underwhelmed and looked uninspired. Lacking ideas, they exited Europe with a whimper.
In truth, we shouldn’t be surprised. It has been the story of Klopp’s men’s season. Now out of all three cup competitions, they are down in sixth in the Premier League table and sit six points off the top four.
Not in action this weekend, they could drop to seventh and see that deficit extended to nine points. Given they travel to Man City and Chelsea before hosting Arsenal in their next three Premier League fixtures following the March international break, with 12 games left of their season, they have it all to do to finish in the top four.
Liverpool need a hero. They need one of their players to step up, grab games by the scruff of the neck, and drag their team-mates over the line. Yet this Reds side has got old together.
All club legends, they have won together repeatedly over the past six years. But now they lose together and it’s costing Klopp’s side dear.
Of course, Father Time catches up with us all, even the Reds’ greatest ever player. Once Gerrard reached veteran status, his boots lost that little bit of fairydust.
He’d still be one of Liverpool’s best players and enjoy decisive moments, but he was perhaps no longer able to win a game on his own. The infamous Chelsea slip in 2014 would demonstrate as much as he tried in vain to make up for a moment that proved costly to the Reds’ title-challenge.
The following December, in what would prove to be Gerrard’s final Champions League appearance, he scored a late free-kick to equalise against Basel as Liverpool looked to clinch qualification for the knockout stages. Yet this time, 10 years on from that iconic Olympiakos victory, there was to be no winner as the Reds crashed out of Europe’s elite competition.
In the months that followed, Gerrard and Liverpool lost in the League Cup semi-finals to Chelsea, he watched on helplessly, absent through injury, as the Reds exited the Europa League on penalties to Besiktas, and could do nothing to prevent a dismal 2-1 FA Cup semi-final loss to Aston Villa.
With the final taking place on the midfielder’s 35th birthday, the stage was set for Gerrard, who had already announced he was leaving the club at the end of his contract, to depart his boyhood club on a high. Alas, that cup exit ensured there would be no fairytale ending at Wembley.
A 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace in his last Anfield appearance and an embarrassing 6-1 loss away at Stoke City, in which he at least scored the Reds’ consolation, in his 710th and final outing for the club just rubbed extra salt in the wounds. While it once felt like Gerrard could turn a game his side’s favour with a click of his fingers, his days of dictating matches for Liverpool had long since been at an end.
It was a benching at the Bernabeu in November 2014 that made Gerrard’s mind up to move on. Travelling to Real Madrid’s iconic stadium for the first time since that 1-0 loss eight and a half years ago, the Reds’ latest narrow defeat signalled another end of an era.
While Liverpool aren’t yet suffering such a severe plight, the likes of Virgil van Dijk and even Mohamed Salah aren’t consistently deciding games as they once did when at their peaks. Now they need that little bit of help.
The Reds are in limbo, hoping their period of transition lasts just one season as they wait for their next generation to grab the baton and their next talisman to emerge.
They need their next Steven Gerrard. Granted, such a concept is far easier said than done, considering such a player comes along just once in a generation. Perhaps this is what Jude Bellingham will be if Liverpool are successful in their efforts to sign the Borussia Dortmund man.
But such a pursuit is at risk following the Reds’ European exit, with it uncertain if they will even be playing Champions League football next season. The implications of such a loss both on and off the pitch could be crippling.
Liverpool can’t wait for the summer to turn a corner, they need to find answers now. A hero needs to emerge from within.
There is no Gerrard to bail the Reds out anymore and hasn’t been for some time. Arguably, they haven’t missed that individual match-winning trait for the majority since his departure either, given what Klopp has been able to build. Why rely on one player when you have a great team?
But this elite Liverpool side is now on its own last legs, with its chance of a final piece of silverware now gone, and without a leading talisman who can deliver that little bit more to inspire those around him.
Klopp can only hope they rediscover the lost fight, that was so clearly lacking at the Bernabeu, during the March international break to ensure the Reds changing of the guard is as smooth as possible.
Liverpool don’t want to spend next season outside of the Champions League. Such a fact is obvious, and their dressing room and manager have said as much repeatedly.
But now, as Gerrard demonstrated against Olympiakos back in 2004, they need to follow through and ensure such declarations aren’t just empty words.