Steven Gerrard’s phone has been red-hot ahead of the finale to the English Premier League and many of the calls and messages will likely have come from people connected to his former club.
One of the greatest midfielders in his generation, Gerrard never got to win the league for Liverpool in 17 years there as a player and team captain. It was the biggest regret in his career, denying him what he has called “the icing on the cake.”
On Sunday, though, he could help win the title for Liverpool — as a manager of another team.
Gerrard’s Aston Villa stands between Manchester City and another league title, its sixth in 11 seasons. All City needs to do is win at its Etihad Stadium home.
Yet if Gerrard can inspire a win or even a draw for Villa, the title could then go to Liverpool — provided his boyhood club, the team he’ll forever hold dear to his heart, beats Wolverhampton in a match taking place simultaneously at Anfield.
It’s the dominant narrative heading into Sunday and Gerrard can’t deny it.
“I totally understand and respect the external noise and the questions that have been coming my way for some time,” he said. “They’re involved in a title race and I spent a lot of time there.”
So how does Gerrard assess the situation?
“We’ll go out at the weekend,” he said, “and give it everything we’ve got to try and get points for Aston Villa and our supporters.
“If that inevitably helps Liverpool, fantastic, but my priority is to try and get points for Aston Villa.”
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said he hasn’t spoken to Gerrard about the game and won’t be doing so before Sunday.
“Stevie will take it 100% seriously, I am sure, without me calling him,” Klopp said. “I don’t have to. Probably the rest of the club did it already, but I didn’t.”
Klopp said helping Liverpool win the title would presumably be a motivating factor for Gerrard.
“I can only understand these situations by thinking of myself in that role,” Klopp said. “So if I would play a game that would help (his former clubs) Borussia Dortmund or Mainz, that would make for me an extra motivation.
“But I don’t play and Stevie doesn’t play. So that’s a shame. It’s more a shame that Stevie doesn’t play than I don’t play.”
Gerrard has taken the repeated questions about his role in Sunday’s league finale in good spirits but there was one aspect that irritated him.
Villa played Liverpool last week, losing 2-1 at home. The result kept alive the title hopes of the Reds, and there were suggestions that Gerrard would be happy to do his old club a favor.
“It is disappointing,” he said, “when people mention integrity and aim it towards me or Aston Villa or any of my players.”
Gerrard won’t be the only member of Villa’s travelling contingent this weekend with links to Liverpool. Philippe Coutinho and Danny Ings are former Liverpool players and they are likely to return to the team having been left out of Villa’s 1-1 draw with Burnley on Thursday.
The subplots don’t end there.
In City’s team is Jack Grealish, who left Villa in the last offseason as Britain’s first 100 million pound ($139 million) player to join City in his quest for trophies. It’s his old club -- his boyhood club, too -- which could stop him.
City, meanwhile, is looking to avoid becoming the first team to go into the final day of a top-flight campaign as the leader and not end it in first place.
City manager Pep Guardiola attempted to take the pressure off his players on Friday, saying it was just another game.
“It is difficult to say don’t control your emotions. We know what we are playing for,” Guardiola said. “But we know what we have to do, we’ve spoken about it — be positive and don’t give up. Do what you’ve done in the last month, home and away, and go for it.
“At the end, it’s just a football game. We are not going to do anything new.”
It would be extremely painful, however, for City to end the season without any silverware. If that was to be the case, Liverpool — already the winner of both domestic cups — would be heading to next week’s Champions League final looking to complete an unprecedented quadruple.
And the Reds would have one of their greatest ever players partly to thank for that.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80