Anfield captain justifies Kenny Dalgish's stance after Bolton debacle and claims the Reds can still achieve three targets
Steven Gerrard has the offer of an ambassador's role from Liverpool but they are not spoiling him yet. The 31-year-old, along with the rest of Kenny Dalglish's squad, was subject to another calm, composed but cutting critique before training at Melwood on Monday as the manager showed that two nights' sleep had not lessened his disgust at their performance against Bolton. It seems it was forever thus for Liverpool's talismanic captain – backed into a corner and challenged to respond.
Manchester City's arrival at Anfield for Wednesday night's Carling Cup semi-final second leg marks the start of a four-day period in which Liverpool could knock both Manchester clubs from domestic cup competition and book a first appearance at Wembley for 16 years or retreat into renewed self-doubt as City and United move further into the distance while hysteria attaches itself to Dalglish's rebuilding work. There is no middle to squeeze at Liverpool.
Gerrard, of course, has seen it all before and, having converted the penalty that separated the semi-finalists in the first leg, he will be the man Liverpool turn to for the way through once again. The difference in this potentially defining week, however, is that the most strident criticism of Liverpool came from their own manager, a man immersed in the traditions and expectations that he declared his team betrayed at the Reebok on Saturday night.
"It was definitely justified," Gerrard admits. "When you put in a performance like we did as a group you expect criticism, especially from your manager. Kenny spoke in the dressing room after the game and on Monday before training. He wasn't angry, he just said it as it was. He didn't lose his rag or his control. He told individuals and us as a group that it wasn't acceptable. As captain of the team that is down to me and he went through all of us."
Gerrard does not dispute Dalglish's claim that the City second leg contributed to the complacent showing at Bolton. "We didn't need telling really. I knew at half-time and I knew after the game that that hadn't been good enough. Maybe the lads had one eye on this and one eye on that. At the start of the season the big objective for this club was top four so, if you look at it that way, Bolton is bigger than Manchester City." He rejects outright, however, the idea that the 3-1 defeat represents an opportune wake-up call ahead of City and Saturday's inflamed FA Cup fourth-round tie with Manchester United.
"There is no good time to perform like that when you play for this club," he says, the disdain clear in his voice. "You have to win every game. The people new to the club will appreciate and understand that a bit more after a performance like that. You can't do it here. The fans won't accept it, they don't deserve it. It's not allowed. Otherwise you get criticised by your manager, like we have all experienced. I have been here a long time and experienced days like that and the important thing is to move on from it fast. If we perform like that against Manchester City, there will be no Wembley trip."
Dalglish said players would be moved on if the attitude at Bolton prevailed. His problem is that five of the team that started against Owen Coyle's then bottom-placed team were his signings and Craig Bellamy, the veteran signed on a free, was the only one to impress. The £75m spent on Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing remains a weight on the manager and, with the occasional exception from Henderson, poor value for Fenway Sports Group, the club's owner.
Gerrard says only: "Those players know themselves. They know how they are playing. They know what form they are in. What I can say is that those players are working so hard to put in good performances. They are not giving up, they are not throwing the towel in, they are working day in, day out. The effort is there. Maybe they just need a little bit of luck, something to turn their way and they can go on a fine run. We all know those three players you have mentioned are good players."
An outlay of over £100m in the past 12 months by Dalglish and Fenway, with £50m recouped from the sale of Fernando Torres alone, has not transformed Liverpool from a team hovering above the relegation zone when Roy Hodgson was sacked last January into convincing contenders for Champions League qualification. But they are where most expected them to be; competing for a top-four finish, playing far better football – Bolton being the most obvious exception – than in recent seasons and a home draw away from a first visit to Wembley since the 1996 FA Cup final. The murmurs of discontent about Dalglish, and not for his handling of the Luis Suárez controversy, have not escaped Gerrard.
"Our targets were to get into the top four and go on two long runs in the cup and it's still possible. Why change? Why are we crying out for change?" he asks. "We're six points off fourth and there are 16 games left. You're not telling me that this team and the players we've got here are not capable of making that up? The sides who we are competing with aren't on all-out consistent runs. Man United got beat 3-0 by Newcastle the other week, Chelsea drew with Norwich and Arsenal have lost their last three. Why isn't it possible? Why are people crying out for change?
"Don't get me wrong, it's not all great here. We've got a fight on for fourth but we had a fight on at the start of the season, when we were telling people our aims for the season. Of course you go into every season wondering if you can get into the title race but at the moment we're not in it and our realistic aim at the start was top four and two good long runs in the cup. At the end of this week we could be going to Wembley, we could be in the fifth round of the FA Cup and six points off fourth. The flip side of that is different but big weeks happen at big clubs and this is a big week."
And what would it mean to the Huyton-born midfielder to lead Liverpool out at Wembley? "Nothing," he states. "But to lift the cup at Wembley would mean an awful lot. To get to Wembley is the target, to win it is the dream."