Pitchside Europe

Midfield machine Gerrard hitting peak form and fitness

"I’m a realist," said Brendan Rodgers the day after his Liverpool side put five past a stunned Arsenal team.

Naturally, following such a huge and impressive win over what were then the league leaders, suggestions that they could go on to win the title were made.

"I just think it’s unprecedented to go from where we were last year - seventh position [to the title]… That doesn’t stop us fighting and wanting to be the best we can be. And at some point in my time here, we will be ready," he added.

Surely, after winning a hard-fought three points against an impressive, battling Fulham side at Craven Cottage, persons will feel that that time may just be now. Steven Gerrard’s passionate celebration following his game-winning penalty certainly suggested as much. You saw exactly what it meant to him, what it meant to the team, what it meant to Rodgers.

The manner in which they won the game was the manner in which champions do it - stealing all the marbles even though the game unfolded in a way that stacked the odds against them doing so. Leading that charge against the Cottagers here was Gerrard himself. It was a true captain’s display in the midfield engine room, one that saw him make two key contributions that undoubtedly decided the game.

The first contribution helped to haul his side back to level terms after Kolo Toure had put his team behind early on following another defensive error - his second costly one in recent times, and Liverpool’s league-leading 30th error of the season.

Rodgers recently spoke about using Gerrard in a deeper role - that of a 'controller' - which would allow him to get on the ball and dictate the play as well as use his energy to regain possession.

"That position is perfect for him," Rodgers said at the time. "He has the personality to play it. When you play in that controlling role you need to get on the ball and he gives us great variety in his passing."

Gerrard had his say as well: "If you play around good players, they make good movement and put themselves in good positions," he told the club’s website.

And that’s precisely what Daniel Sturridge did just minutes before the break. He made himself available, and Gerrard picked him out with a sublime pass executed with the outside of his right boot.

The England striker raced onto it and finessed it into the far corner beyond a helpless Maarten Stekelenburg. It was a fantastic piece of vision from the 33-year-old, who made 62 other passes on the day, but none as important as this one.

One-One it became, as Sturridge continued his record of scoring in every league game since returning from injury. That’s seven in six games now and 16 overall for the season. Only strike partner Luis Suarez has more than him (23).

But the game – as well as Gerrard – hadn’t yet gone the distance. Kieran Richardson put the hosts back ahead from close range within 20 minutes of the restart, giving Liverpool all to do again. Coutinho, however, was equal to the task, firing a deflected effort past Stekelenburg less than 10 minutes later.

And then it was Gerrard’s turn again. Just when it seemed that a point was all Liverpool were going to get, Sascha Riether fouled Sturridge in the box in injury time, giving the Reds a penalty right at the death.

So up stepped Gerrard, who lashed it home with great composure. Cue the celebration. He took off his jersey and ran to the travelling supporters, earning a yellow card he obviously won’t care about.

Having pulled his side three points clear of fifth-placed Spurs and to within four of leaders Chelsea, one could understand exactly why that goal meant so much to him. Those two contributions from him could prove decisive in the race not only for a top four place, but for the title.

Even if the Reds do fall short, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given they are still growing, this game would have proved that they at least have enough to be among the big hitters.

Gerrard certainly is.

His performance here earned him a joint game-high Performance Score of 61 points, bringing him to a total of 867 for the season, making him the league’s third-best player behind Suarez and Chelsea’s in-form Eden Hazard.

That’s mighty fine company, and if he continues to influence games in this manner he could well see his side dine not only with the league’s most elite, but Europe’s come next season.

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