By Peter Karl

Steven Gerrard is looking old. He’s got saddle bags. Crow’s feet. Wrinkles. His eyes have seen better days. But his eyes have seen a lot of football.Over the past year, most of that football was seen from the director’s box.

It’s hard to believe that in 2011, being as transformative a year as it was for Liverpool FC, so much changed with Steven Gerrard bandaged to the background. With a stubborn groin injury threatening his career, the club seemed to start planning for the worst. A permanently Gerrard-less Liverpool. Imagine? It’s the stuff nightmares are made of. I know I’ve had them.

And that day will come. But it’s not today. Or tomorrow. Or next year. Thanks to the contract extension Gerrard signed yesterday at Melwood, the Scouser who started his career at LFC when he was nine, will be at the club for life. Whenever Gerrard hangs up his boots — a fate that’s more likely to be determined by his groin than his gourd, sadly – he’ll remain at the club in an ambassadorial role. It’s a splendid deal that will keep one of Liverpool’s all-time greatest players at the club, forever. But as important a role as he’ll play in the future, and as he has in the past, Gerrard will never be as important to Liverpool than he is right now.

At the ripe age of 31, Gerrard has, alas, returned to the squad healthy and fit. Thirty-one is a bit young for saddle bags and crow’s feet, but hey, he’s a Scouser; people just age faster in Liverpool. Joking aside, Gerrard’s return to fitness and form has been a pleasant surprise to all LFC fans. He’s energetic, spritely, and unafraid. And coming off a streak of bad leg injuries – first, the groin, then, the ankle infection – you’d have expected some rust or hesitation. But Gerrard has hardly shown any. And frankly, he can’t afford to.

As the season eclipses the halfway point, Liverpool still have their sights rightly set on playing Champions League football next season. At sixth in the table and 3 points behind Chelsea and that coveted 4th place, the next two months will determine if Gerrard will not only get another shot at European glory, but Premier League glory as well.

A month ago, Liverpool did not look like a team capable of 4th place. The Reds lacked bite. Their attack had gone toothless. Luis Suarez had fallen out of goal-scoring form and Lucas Leiva’s season-ending injury on November 29th had crippled the entire fluidity of our play. A loss to Fulham and draws to Wigan and Blackburn before Christmas made another 5th or 6th place finish seem inevitable.

Enter, Captain Fantastic. Gerrard’s return in the 58th minute against Newcastle on December 30th was like watching Shadow’s return in the last scene of Homeward Bound (watch and you’ll understand). There was hope. He wasn’t broken. And in fact, he fixed us. For 30 minutes, we saw Liverpool play with the attacking edge we were so starved for. And when Gerrard skillfully slotted the third goal through Tim Krul’s legs, we knew we had our Captain back.

The guile Gerrard injected into the squad against Oldham last week and Man City on Tuesday was just spectacular. But maintaining and improving this is where Gerrard’s importance comes in. Before Gerrard’s return, Liverpool was a team of talented players that lacked a major piece. A leader.

Without a leader, Jordan Henderson repeatedly showed his lack of confidence at home. Now he has Gerrard to settle and guide him. Without a leader, Jay Spearing remained prone to his untamed, gremlin-like appearance and style of play. One of which, Gerrard can tame. (There’s just no helping that boy’s face.) Without a leader, Charlie Adam, for all his efforts, continued to try and be a playmaker. He is not a playmaker. He is a provider. Gerrard can lessen that burden and because he is a supremely better footballer than Adam, Stevie will just do both while Charlie sucks on a Lucozade. The service given to Andy Carroll hasn’t been the best of quality, despite his pathetic attempts to even finish the easy ones. Now Gerrard can feed his greasy dome all the hair-seeking crosses he can possibly fluff. The point is, Gerrard can, excuse me, he must be the one to glue all the pieces of Damien Comolli’s puzzle together. If Anfield is to host those magical European nights next season, Gerrard better whip out the adhesives.

But is it really the Champions League that Gerrard and Liverpool want the most? No. Gerrard has lifted his European Cup. It’s the Premier League trophy that is the apple of all our eyes. But Champions League qualification means Champions League money, which means Champions League players, which means Premier League title contention. John Henry, Shankly bless his soul, has done the unthinkable to Liverpool in just one year’s time. But, be honest, this squad is not good enough to win the Premier League. In modern football, to compete with Manchester City’s petrol-fueled roster, you need to attract the biggest names. Liverpool can do that by reaching 4th place this season. Then next year, Gerrard and Co. can focus on winning what Liverpool hasn’t in 23 years (the longest drought in the club’s history): The League.

Yes, you can argue that Gerrard was of utmost importance in 2005 when we won the Champions League. Where would we be if he didn’t put his laces through that volley against Olympiakos in the group stages? Or if he didn’t draw that penalty from Gattuso in Istanbul? We’d be nothing more than AC Milan’s European whipping post. But that was a Liverpool team with a medley of experienced, world-class players. And remember, Liverpool finished 5th in the league that season.

According to Damien Comolli, just having a healthy and committed Steven Gerrard is an important part in attracting those players. After Gerrard penned his new deal Wednesday, Comolli said, “When you talk to players, whether they are in the Premier League or outside of the country, very often they say ‘will Steven Gerrard be here?’ and ‘what’s his contract situation? Because he’s so good I want to play next to him’ And I can understand that.” Me too, Damien, me too.

Steven Gerrard is the best player England has seen in the last 20 years. It would be a travesty if never lifted the Premier League trophy in a Liverpool shirt. At 31, and a wrinkly 31 it is, he might have just two seasons left in his magical right boot, groin willing. Today, Liverpool Football Club needs it’s leader more than ever.

Peter Karl is a guest blogger for The Red Letter. He lives in Los Angeles but misses Boston dearly. He says he became an LFC fan one Saturday morning in college when a full English breakfast and a dramatic late Liverpool victory at the Phoenix Landing cured his worst-ever hangover. Since then, his fandom has turned into a full blown obsession. Pete is also the editor of his own soccer blog, The Third Kit (www.thirdkit.com) and is a contributor to The Sabotage Times.

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