By Liam Twomey
When Chelsea and Liverpool renew hostilities at Anfield on Sunday, all eyes, inevitably, will fall on Rafa Benitez. With less than a month to go in a tenure which is already certain to see him remembered as the most loathed Blues manager ever, the Spaniard will have to work hard to conceal his pleasure at the warm welcome that will surely be extended to him by the Kop.
But more significant than this, or the legions of other subplots which permeate this peculiar modern rivalry, is the prospect of two of its most enduring figures facing off for the last time.
The influence Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard – or Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, depending on your viewpoint, and everyone has one – have exerted over their respective club’s fortunes over the past decade is such that the idea they may never again share a football pitch, commanding opposing forces of red and blue, constitutes nothing less than the end of an era.
Both men surely tired long ago of the endless comparisons, yet their positions, playing styles, career paths and achievements ensure one can never be considered apart from the other. At club level they became symbols of two English giants who came to fear and dislike one another in equal measure. Even for their country they were destined to be rivals as much as team-mates.
Lampard or Gerrard? Lampard and Gerrard? Two profoundly different but equally beguiling questions which have perplexed managers, pundits and fans alike over the years. The issue of whether they could both shine in the same midfield became the debate of choice for those seeking to rationalise why England’s so-called “Golden Generation” failed to ignite.
Some insisted that two midfield playmakers so accustomed to having the engine room built around them could never adjust to being just another cog, and that neither possessed the defensive abilities or inclination to give the national team balance.
Others argued the two were different enough to complement each other – Lampard with his economical passing and clever movement, Gerrard with his drive, power and sheer force of will – and invoked the age-old mantra of ‘good players can play together’.
Jose Mourinho clearly belonged in the latter camp. An avowed admirer of Gerrard, one can only imagine how events would have transpired for all parties had the Special One succeeded in convincing Liverpool’s talisman to swap Anfield for Stamford Bridge and life alongside Lampard in the summer of 2005.
That he did not was cause for great relief in the Red half of Merseyside and, perhaps, regret for the succession of England managers who have followed. Gerrard’s feelings, however, are likely more nuanced, having sacrificed the chance to win a Premier League title in order to further strengthen his claim to be considered Liverpool’s greatest ever captain, and a club legend to rival any other.
Gerrard’s choice ensured the rivalry between the two men remained clearly defined, punctuated by the numerous heated Champions League battles between Chelsea and Liverpool in the ensuing years. He may only have scored once in 34 games against the Blues, but the favourite son of Anfield has proved the architect of their downfall many times.
Lampard, meanwhile, contented himself with adding to his medal collection: three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups and, at long last, a Champions League crown. His haul of 10 major trophies compares favourably to Gerrard’s seven, five of which are domestic cups.
Yet the CVs of both men are worthy testaments to their remarkable careers. Gerrard’s determination almost single-handedly dragged Liverpool to Champions League glory in Istanbul in 2005 and a last-gasp FA Cup triumph over West Ham in 2006. Lampard’s prolific goalscoring from midfield proved vital in all three of Chelsea’s title winning seasons, and his defiance helped bring about the ‘Miracle of Munich’ last May.
Lampard is the highest scoring midfielder in Premier League history, while Gerrard is widely considered the greatest player never to win the trophy. In the light of such astonishing pedigree, it becomes clear that any preference for one over the other is a matter of taste rather than merit.
Age has forced both men to change their games, operating in deeper roles and using mental attributes to compensate for diminishing physical capabilities. The ease with which this transition has been made is plain to see – Gerrard will captain England at next year’s World Cup should they make it, and few would bet against Lampard earning a seat on the plane too.
Brendan Rodgers, despite being initially sceptical, has become so convinced of Gerrard’s enduring worth that he recently suggested his 32-year-old captain could continue his top-level career for another five years. In contrast Lampard, two years his senior, has been deemed surplus to requirements by Chelsea, with LA Galaxy more than interested observers.
But in the short term both men still have plenty to aim for. Gerrard is just two goals shy of 100 Premier League goals, while the same margin separates Lampard from Chelsea’s all-time scoring record. It would be fitting if each could add another feather to his cap on Sunday.