Steven Gerrard will leave Liverpool as one of the best ever

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How do you replace the irreplaceable?

He has been the soul of the club for nearly two decades, but Steven Gerrard has announced his Liverpool career is to end in the summer. At 34, Gerrard can depart safely in the knowledge that he could have given no more to his boyhood club, the local lad who came good and shouldered the burden of hope and expectation single-handedly at times.

Esteemed company

The greatest testament to Gerrard is that he ranks alongside, if not above, the plethora of Liverpool greats before him, despite never playing alongside such esteemed company.

Kenny Dalglish, often labelled as the clubs greatest ever player, was part of a side which conquered at both home and abroad. Steven Gerrard was not so fortunate. He may have played alongside great players - think Michael Owen, Xabi Alonso and Luis Suarez - but never as part of a great team. For Gerrard, he respresented a ray of hope in an era of much mediocrity, whilst great rivals Manchester United embarked on a  trophy-laden period of dominance.

For the fans, he became the man they lived their dreams through. A boyhood fan, he became the leader and symbol of the team he loved, almost single-handedly producing some of the greatest moments in the clubs history. Alongside Jamie Carragher, he became the on-pitch embodiment of the Kop's passion.

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It wasn't all perfect, his incredible belief and desire to win games by himself was perhaps detrimental at time. The problematic Gerrard-Frank Lampard axis in the England midfield was partly down to Gerrard's refusal to adapt his game to that of a play-making holding midfield player.

With Lampard's superior goal-record, it seemed the natural conclusion if both were to play in the same team. It was a role in which Gerrard was more than accomplished, fans will remember a 21-year-old Gerrard pulling the strings in a famous 5-1 win over Germany in autumn 2001.

Steven Gerrard in his prime however, felt his all-action style was restricted and his hunger to be almost everywhere was possibly his biggest downfall on the international stage. That said, like Paul Scholes before him, he perhaps became a victim of his own versatility. The fact England never utilised players of this talent to their maximum is one of considerable regret.

His legend, however, was built on adversity, and in time when his club needed a saviour, he so often provided the moment when it mattered most. His famous late strike against Olympiakos which sealed Liverpool's progress to the knock-out stages of the 2004/2005 Champions League became the catalyst for arguably the greatest night in the club's history.

The momentum from that night carried Rafael Benitez's underdogs right to the final, where a Gerrard inspired comeback from a three goal deficit against AC Milan crowned Liverpool champions of Europe for the fifth time. He scored the first goal that night in Istanbul, but it is perhaps his celebration which most symbolised his character. Waving his arms franticly, in a desperate bid to raise both hope and belief amongst fans and team-mates alike. His belief was vindicated and his legend was cemented.

A year later he scored twice, including a stunning stoppage-time goal to save Liverpool from FA Cup final defeat at the hands of West Ham United. Liverpool would again win a trophy via the penalty shoot-out, Gerrard would again drag his side kicking and screaming back into a tie they had no right to win. You would be hard pressed to think of a forward who has scored as many crucial goals, let alone a midfielder. He remains the only man to have scored in the four major cup finals of European, UEFA, FA and League Cup; all ended in triumphs with Gerrard his inspirational best.

It should be viewed as a compliment to the man himself that his loyalty ultimately proved sacrificial to personal success. He came closest to leaving the club for Jose Mourinho's Chelsea in 2005, his head admittedly turned by the prospect of increased chances of silverware. He eventually reversed his decision, with the wrench of leaving his club and his city proving too difficult.

He would have undoubtedly enjoyed more success in West London, including the Premier League title which has proved ultimately elusive, but would any success enjoyed away from Anfield tasted quite as sweet as those enjoyed in red? Chelsea were not the only side to try and prise him away. Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all sent overtures over his career, only to be turned away.

The closest he came to the league title he craves came last season, and in the cruellest of twists of fate, it was Gerrard's unfortunate slip which allowed Demba Ba to race through and open the scoring for Chelsea in a match which handed the title initiative back to Manchester City. It is a pain Gerrard will forever carry with him, the most bitter of disappointments. It is a moment Liverpool fans can only sympathise with, rather than hold against a man who has done so much for their club.

He will be remembered as one of the greatest players of the Premier League era, and arguably the greatest in Liverpool's proud history. At his best he was captivating, perhaps the most influential on-pitch presence of his generation.

With Liverpool still competing on three cup fronts, the opportunity for a final farewell remains open before he departs for Major League Soccer in the US. The FA Cup final, should Liverpool reach it, falls on May 30th, which happens to be the midfielders 35th birthday.

The script writes itself really, doesn't it?

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