Leighton Baines was clearly furious to have conceded the free-kick, but it was mostly because he thought Mario Balotelli had dived. As the Italian fell the ball had run on to Philippe Coutinho who had immediately dribbled at the Everton defenders as though he wasn’t expecting play to be stopped. Baines’s annoyance was understandable.
The consolation for Everton’s left back was that at least the free-kick did not look dangerous. The ball was 25 yards out in a right-of-centre position that favoured a left-footed kicker. Liverpool did not have any left-footed set-piece specialists on the field.
They did, however, have the right foot of Steven Gerrard. And the Liverpool captain dropped a gorgeous velvety shot into Tim Howard’s top corner. Gerrard ran to the fans cupping his ears. Afterwards, he admitted that recent criticism had played on his mind.
“I’ll agree with the constructive criticism . . . but then some people take it too far and say, ‘he’s 34, he can’t run and he’s finished’. It’s nice to remind people that although I’m 34, I can still run. I can still play and I can compete with the best players around.”
Brendan Rodgers said: “I find [the criticism of Gerrard] incredible. This is a player who’s 34 years of age, who’s still a high-level footballer . . . he’s at a level now where players are man-marking him. And that shows you the influence he has still in his game.”
Gary Lineker set the tone for the reaction by tweeting: “Steven Gerrard sticks a free kick in the net and a middle finger up to those that write him off.” The tone of most of the coverage was best summed up in the Sunday Telegraph, whose
correspondent Henry Winter wrote: “Gerrard’s still a hit . . . He is still considered a threat by opposing managers . . . he still has an important role to play . . . he can still shape games.”
Elsewhere in the Sunday papers, Gerrard’s friend Wayne Rooney, who has also taken some flak in recent weeks, had given an exclusive interview to the Sunday Times. Rooney said things like: “I still believe I can get better as a footballer” and “I still feel I’ve got at least two or three years up front.”
“Still” was clearly the word of the weekend. The repetition brought to mind a 2011 piece on Roger Federer by American sportswriter Brian Phillips. “The saddest moment in the career of a great athlete is the one when he’s tagged with the word “still.” One day you’re fast. One day you’re slow. There’s an in-between day when you’re ‘still fast’, and that’s the day when everything hollows out.”
Gerrard proved on Saturday that he can still strike a mean dead ball, but nobody ever doubted that. Everyone knows his right foot is one of the best in the game. Gerrard noted of Phil Jagielka’s stunning equaliser that it was “the kind of strike you hit once in your career”, which might be true for a player like Jagielka but not for Gerrard, who has an entire highlight reel of similar strikes. Long after he has retired, Gerrard will still hit a great free-kick.