• Squad improvements expected in the summer, says captain
• Europa League place remains the target for current season
Liverpool's hopes of qualifying for the Champions League ended some weeks ago yet Steven Gerrard believes the side are "not far away" from breaking into the Premier League's top four.
Speaking after the 2-1 win at Aston Villa, during which Gerrard put in a man-of-the-match display, contributing to both goals as well as making a stunning goalline clearance from Christian Benteke's 65th-minute header, the club captain insisted that a few signings are all that separates Liverpool from returning to Europe's elite competition. They are currently seventh, seven points behind Chelsea in fourth.
"We're not far away," said Gerrard. "There will be some improvements in the summer to the squad and we believe we can then put in a better challenge for the top four next season.
"We know what our problem is and it's inconsistency. For the majority of the games [this season] we have played well enough to be higher up the league than we are, but when you look at performances like Southampton, Aston Villa at home, West Brom away, Arsenal at home; there's a handful of games there that this team hasn't turned up. That's the reason why we are sitting where we are in the table. But there have been some fantastic performances, ones that are well worth a top-four finish."
Gerrard was not the only Liverpool player who shone at Villa Park, with Luis Suárez putting in another industrious and ingenious display. Philippe Coutinho, the 20-year-old Brazilian who arrived at Anfield from Internazionale for £8.5m in January, also impressed with his skill and passing range, and it is players of their calibre that, as far as Gerrard is concerned, Liverpool should be targeting in the close season.
"If you have players like Coutinho and Suárez in your team then you win games," said the 32-year-old. "Ever since I was a player as a kid, you always find it easier to play alongside quality players. All the way through, Michael Owen, [Fernando] Torres, Suárez, Coutinho, they are the easiest players to play with."
Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, has made clear his desire to extend Gerrard's stay at Anfield. The midfielder's deal expires at the end of next season and Rodgers is adamant that "a new contract is on the agenda". Gerrard, however, was in no mood to speak about the situation, insisting that such talks are "not a priority" and that "the important thing is to finish the season strongly and feeling good".
His long-time team-mate and friend Jamie Carragher is convinced he will end his career at Anfield and that his displays this season – Gerrard has played every minute of their Premier League games – prove that he remains a formidable force.
"I'm sure he will sign a contract and finish his career at Liverpool the way I've done," said Carragher, who announced in February that he will be retiring in the summer having made his debut for the club in 1997. "I'm sure he'll sit down and sort it out in the next couple of months.
"Steve will be finishing his career at Liverpool. He is captain fantastic every week. He's been doing it for years, scoring at one end, saving at the other."
Carragher was also full of praise for Suárez and stated his belief that the Uruguayan, the Premier League's top scorer, should be named PFA's player of the year. "I've played with a lot of top players here and I've always said Stevie was the best. But Luis is on his shoulder, he is very close, and [against Villa] he showed why he deserves to be player of the year."
Sunday's victory, in which Liverpool scored twice in the second half following to Benteke's 31st-minute opener, put the Merseysiders back within three points of Everton, who have a game in hand, in sixth. Their realistic ambition is to secure a Europa League place and Gerrard has insisted the team will go all out to win their remaining seven fixtures. "We need to keep the pressure up for that European place," he said. "A lot of the teams above us play each other so we're hoping there are a few slip-ups and we can capitalise. It's important that we keep on taking maximum points. The manager told us that every game is like a cup final now."