Steven Gerrard: Has Liverpool captain ruined fairytale farewell?
Steven Gerrard's appearance as Liverpool's impact substitute lived up to its name - albeit for only 38 seconds - before his final Anfield meeting with Manchester United ended in ignominy.
Brazil legend Pele spent longer on the famous turf fulfilling half-time promotional duties than Liverpool's 34-year-old captain did after he was sent on to salvage a faltering performance.
United led through Juan Mata's goal when Gerrard concluded his chaotic cameo with a stamp on Ander Herrera that brought a deserved red card from referee Martin Atkinson.
Mata's second pushed United towards a fully merited 2-1 win - Daniel Sturridge pulled a goal back for Liverpool - with Louis van Gaal's side even afforded the luxury of Wayne Rooney's missed penalty in injury time.
But the main talking point was Gerrard's brief and explosive intervention that led to him taking responsibility for a defeat that damages Liverpool's top four hopes.
What was behind Gerrard's moment of madness?
Gerrard was rapturously received by Liverpool's fans, who had witnessed a desperately poor first-half performance from their team - and the captain was self-evidently high on adrenalin after watching as a substitute.
In those 38 seconds he sprayed a trademark long pass out to the right wing, roused Anfield with a bone-shaker of a tackle on Mata before a tangle with Herrera ended with that spiteful stamp. Two out of his three interventions would have been just what Rodgers wanted. The final act may well have major consequences.
Liverpool supporters howled their disapproval but there was no defence - so what factors might have been at work in Gerrard's mind?
This is a player coming to the close of a glittering Liverpool career. There will not be many more games like this left for the 34-year-old before he joins LA Galaxy. He also knew Liverpool, as they have done many times, needed him.
These are the sort of games that have defined his Liverpool career, so it will have been a source of huge frustration that he was a substitute instead of confronting old adversaries from the start.
|Gerrard's moments of madness|
|It was Gerrard's sixth Premier League red card for Liverpool, twice as many as any other player for the club|
As he warmed up in the first half he was treated to the full song sheet from United's fans in the Anfield Road end about his slip that let Chelsea's Demba Ba in to sabotage the possibility of Liverpool's first title in 24 years last April - and of course the one medal missing in his collection.
Gerrard's failure to win the Premier League was also serenaded and, while he responded with a wave to United's fans, he would not be human if this did not fire him up even further when he did come on.
His career has had dark moments in these past 12 months, from the Chelsea slip to an undistinguished World Cup and the realisation he is now on the margins at Liverpool.
The giants of sport do not go quietly so Gerrard would have felt this was a huge moment, a chance to leave Liverpool with a place in the Champions League, and possibly even an FA Cup to remember him by.
He was clearly ticking when he came on and the end result was a moment of recklessness that was inexcusable in a player of such experience and who knew the size of the responsibility.
It should be noted that Gerrard is his own fiercest critic, searingly honest about his own failings as well as his successes, so no-one should be surprised at his public acceptance of blame.
He knew as he was walking off he had let himself and Liverpool down. Whether it was a build-up of frustration, adrenalin, a desperate desire to answer United's fans or just a simple rush of blood to the head, he will hope this does not prove another expensive mistake.
What now for Gerrard?
Gerrard's long farewell to Liverpool and the Premier League just got a lot shorter with the three-game suspension he will serve as the result of his stamp.
He now has a maximum of six league games left as he misses the visit to Arsenal and the home game with Newcastle United.
Gerrard is also out of the FA Cup quarter-final replay with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park early next month but still has the potential for two more games in the competition.
The FA Cup final will be played on Gerrard's 35th birthday on 30 May, regarded as a date with destiny by many Liverpool supporters, who hope fate will decree he bows out with another trophy.
He is leaving for LA Galaxy because it became clear in recent months that his game time will be reduced. He did not make an automatic return to Liverpool's side for the win at Swansea City last Monday after recovering from a hamstring injury.
Gerrard, though, remains proud and driven, and the embarrassment he suffered against Manchester United will make him even more determined not to go out with a whimper after a career that has him deservedly regarded by many fans as being in the same bracket as Kenny Dalglish as a candidate for the greatest player to represent Liverpool.
His time may now be shorter - but there is still time for the big finish.
Liverpool beaten at their own game
Liverpool's revival since a 3-0 loss at Manchester United in mid-December left them 10th in the Premier League and 10 points adrift of Louis van Gaal's side has been built on facets old and new.
The new was the sight of recent signings such as Emre Can finally settling to life at Liverpool after a hectic transfer summer and a tactical tweak to a three-man defence. The old was the return of the familiar pace and pressing that is the trademark of a Brendan Rodgers team.
In those intervening months, the tactic of suffocating opponents on the ball, simply refusing them time to play and relax, had returned and pushed Liverpool back towards the top four. The loss to United made them the final team to lose a Premier League match in 2015.
|Liverpool v Manchester United in numbers|
|1||Shots on target||4|
|3 (2 yellow, 1 red)||Bookings||2|
Here, United turned their own tactics back on them, shocking them with pressure and crisp passing in the opening phase of the game.
United manager Van Gaal acknowledged the importance, saying: "We played them off the pitch in the first half.
"They were in fantastic shape but we beat them with their own weapons."
Rodgers knew vital ingredients - namely that quality of passing and pressing - were missing as he said: "The game was set up to press the opponent really high up the pitch but our starting position was way too deep. We should have been 15 to 20 metres further up the pitch to press the game."
Liverpool's manager has shown a willingness to learn from defeats and make the necessary adjustments and will be trying to do so again before their next Premier League game - a crucial visit to another top four-rival, Arsenal.
Can Liverpool still reach the top four?
While Sunday's defeat by Manchester United inflicted a blow to Liverpool's chances of qualifying for the Champions League next season, it should be placed in context. It was their first Premier League loss since they were beaten at Old Trafford on 14 December.
It is the end of a fine sequence that has put Liverpool back on the brink of the top four, so it would be a surprise if confidence was dented too much by a single setback. The goal is still in their sights and attainable.
Rodgers's side, however, do need to get back to the form they lost on Sunday quickly, given the challenge of a visit to Arsenal's Emirates Stadium.
They have tough away games to come against Hull City, West Brom, Stoke City and, especially, Chelsea before the end of the season, but these are also matches from which Liverpool will feel they can take something.
With their top-four rivals (and we must include Southampton and Tottenham in that number) all picking up three points, it was not a good weekend for Liverpool as the only team in the top seven to lose.
But there is still plenty of resilience with Rodgers's side, as they proved with 10 men against United, and he will hope this is merely a temporary interruption to the fine form Liverpool have shown in the last three months.