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England look to Gerrard for heroics
Steven Gerrard likes to lead from the front. He is a swashbuckler, a hero by nature whose greatest moments are etched in the folklore surrounding Liverpool Football Club.
When Scousers marvel at the memory of the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul, where Liverpool were 3-0 down at half-time to an imperious Milan side yet recovered to win on penalties, the mental sepia images always include those of Gerrard’s bristling defiance, epitomized by the header that brought the first of the fightback goals.
A few months earlier, there had been a comic-strip late clincher – "Oh ya beauty!" screamed the commentator - in a dramatic tie against Olympiacos at Liverpool’s intense Anfield stadium. And he makes such a habit of that sort of thing that "Stevie Wonder" is one of the most overused headlines in English soccer journalism.
When I say that now is the time to lay on a bit of that heroism for England, I don’t mean that he owes the nation anything; he will be awarded his 94th international appearance against Sweden on Friday and no one gets to that kind of figure by being a dud. It is just that Gerrard is oddly missing from the folklore – such as it has been since England’s solitary lifting of silverware in 1966 – of the national team.
Some of his games have been brilliant, most have been okay, his skills and commitment lauded throughout Europe. Those have made him popular enough to avoid a coating in opprobrium when things go wrong, as they did when Gerrard’s ill-judged back-pass let Zinedine Zidane seize a late victory for France in the 2004 European Championship.
They seemed to be going dazzlingly right two years ago, when England began their World Cup against the United States. Gerrard, taking a cute pass from Emile Heskey, beat Tim Howard after just four minutes. Captain in a tournament for the first time, he raced to the touchline to celebrate wildly and England had its hero.
Then goalkeeper Robert Green let Clint Dempsey’s shot squeeze past him and the dream slowly died. It turned to a nightmare when Frank Lampard was infamously denied his over-the-line goal and Germany marched on to 4-1 win.
Gerrard subsequently lost the armband to John Terry, but the Chelsea skipper never seems far from controversy. In February, the insistence of the English FA leadership that the captaincy be awarded to someone else prompted Fabio Capello to quit as national coach. When Roy Hodgson was appointed successor, he turned to Gerrard, whom the new boss knew from his ill-fated time at Liverpool.
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It was an encouraging start to the serious business against France in Donetsk on Monday. Gerrard provided just what the team needed on an occasion when the priority was to avoid defeat. He gave a disciplined display alongside Scott Parker in central midfield, firmly concentrating on the protection of the back four that contributed to a 1-1 tie with the group favorite.
The English public and media, as well as the pragmatic Hodgson and his players, were happy enough with that. But everyone expects them to go for a win against Sweden. Because Sweden, for all their history and admirable record against England over the decades – not to mention Zlatan Ibrahimovic - are beatable, as Andriy Shevchenko emphasized in Ukraine’s opener.
Victory over the Swedes in Kiev would leave England requiring a point at most from their final group game against Shevchenko and company back in Donetsk. In this match, Wayne Rooney becomes available again after serving his suspension for kicking an opponent in the concluding qualifying game in Montenegro.
Pace will figure prominently in England’s attempt to beat the Swedes. Danny Welbeck, picked to start the France game ahead of the taller and more aerially threatening Andy Carroll, can expect to link with his Manchester United colleague Ashley Young once more. Indeed Hodgson has hinted at a same-again approach to selection, insisting that his team can change its way of playing in accordance with the opposition.
To take the game to Sweden, they must move the defensive line much higher up the field than against France. That more compact shape should let Gerrard forge a link with the front, and the closer he gets to the front, the more likely he is to score one of those spectacular goals. A national hero at last? Why not?
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