OpinionJohn Aldridge

Stevie needs central role

Steven Gerrard
Steven Gerrard

STEVEN GERRARD needs to be handed a central role in Liverpool’s team at Wembley this afternoon because his leadership qualities could be decisive in what I expect to be a tight FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa.

Plenty of critics have been quick to snipe at Gerrard in recent weeks as he has struggled with injuries and then got himself sent off against Manchester United with an ill-judged challenge that was as much an act of frustration as it was recklessness.
Yet the reality is that when the action starts at the home of football this afternoon, Gerrard is the best man Liverpool can have on their side.
Stevie may be edging towards the final month of his remarkable Liverpool career, but his status as one of the game’s great talismen of the last two decades will be crucial on a day when nerves will be frayed and tensions will run high.
This is a massive game for Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers because losing today will spark a big debate over a failed season and yet an alternative scenario is still realistic. FA Cup success would make this a good season for Liverpool in my eyes.
This is why Brendan should not even consider leaving his most experienced big-match performer on the bench, even if Gerrard has not played a whole lot of football in the last couple of months. 
I don’t know how many times Gerrard has played at Wembley for England, but he will appreciate what the big stage is all about and his record over many years confirms he delivers with a big goal or a match winning-performance when the stakes are at their highest.
Stevie may not be the player he once was, but he still has the ability to be the best player on the the field in a tie that I feel could easily swing against the Reds.
Villa have given Liverpool a few problems in recent years and, while I suspect their threat will be nullified to a great extent if the Reds keep their big Belgian marksman Christian Benteke quiet, this is a game where Tim Sherwoods’s men can relax and have a real stab at glory.
All the tension Villa have been feeling in recent weeks as they have battled against the drop in the Premier League will be absent at Wembley and they can play with freedom knowing they are one game away from a massive prize.
That said, Liverpool should have an edge so long as Rodgers reverts to the back three formation that has served him so well in the last few months, with the four-man defence not looking solid against an average Newcastle side last Monday night.
I would get Emre Can, Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel in the back three and try to get the wing backs working effectively as an attacking threat. Despite his fine goal against Newcastle, I would leave Joe Allen out and with Daniel Sturridge injured yet again, the key to victory for Liverpool will be getting support to lead striker Raheem Sterling.
On paper, you would say Liverpool should win, but my weekly charity bet on sundayworld.com was for this semi-final to end in a score draw after 90 minutes today and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it went all the way to a penalty shoot out.
My nerves could not take that scenario, so I’m hoping Liverpool get the job done in a more impressive fashion than I suspect they might, but my guess is that this could turn into a difficult afternoon.
The recent defeats against Manchester United and Arsenal have knocked the self-belief of the Reds players and you could see that as they laboured to an unconvincing victory against Newcastle.
However, confidence can come and go very quickly in this game and if they leave Wembley as winners and have an FA Cup Final to look forward to next month, the disappointments of recent weeks will be quickly forgotten.
Liverpool’s whole season is on the line against Aston Villa today and I’m backing them to get the job done after a nervous battle against Villa.