Is it time for Steven Gerrard to walk alone out of Liverpool?
The events that took place 456 miles away shaped Liverpool's mood of utter dejection in Budapest on Tuesday night, but a glance across the pitch may have proved almost as dispiriting for Steven Gerrard. No Fernando Torres and only Javier Mascherano looking fit to be called his peer, Gerrard cut a disconsolate figure as he made his way down the tunnel forconfirmation that Fiorentina had condemned him to the Europa League by beating Lyon. Jamie Carragher had put in another solid shift and Daniel Agger drew applause from Gerrard with one probing run and pass, but from the base of midfield to the furthest point forward, Mascherano alone looked worthy of sharing the same pitch as the Liverpool skipper. It added to the welter of questions raining down on Rafa Benitez, in the wake ofLiverpool's early exit from the Champions League, as the thought occurred: Just how much longer can Gerrard's fierce sense of loyalty outweigh his longing to finish a domestic campaign in top place? Back turned: Gerrard walks past Benitez - and the Liverpool manager will fear him walking out of the club He appears as far away as ever and, if there is still no sign of a title on the horizon after another season of carrying his home team virtually on his own, the question is sure to be aired again when he is 30 in May. Sporting anything other than Liverpool colours may seem unthinkable for the Englandmidfielder, but time is running out if he is to avoid being remembered as one of the greatest players never to win the League. He can ill afford to delay a decision beyond next summer, even though he admits that having to judge whether the most elusive of prizes can be won in a Liverpool shirt would count as the toughest call of his career. In an interview with Sportsmail earlier this season, he underlined how such a dilemma would tear him apart, saying: 'If I never won the League title, there would be regrets and an empty space. Yet, even if Liverpool were no longer challenging, I would still find it difficult to leave. I could win 90 per cent of my medals here and one League championship elsewhere, and that last medal would not mean as much.' The impression persists that the bond may well remain intact, yet failure to fulfil Rafa Benitez's promise that another Champions League place will be secured would leave Liverpool at the mercy of predators like never before. Anfield chiefs insist it would not count as a financial calamity, given their careful budgeting and record sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered Bank. But Liverpool had budgeted to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League, which would have brought in £2.7million. Now, to help them balance the books, they will need to win the Europa League competition, which will ensure they collect £2.65m. The prospect of Mascherano and, in particular, Torres returning from the World Cup finals for a Europa League campaign, having further enhanced their internationalstatus before a global audience, fills Liverpool with dread. Plenty of suitors: Mascherano Encouragingly, Torres has developed a strong attachment to Liverpool and Benitez. But he remains ambitious about operating at the highest level, certainly the Champions League, and there are already suggestions that Barcelona's Anfield interests are not restricted to Mascherano. It is highly unlikely Torres would be allowed to join another English club and inconceivable he would join Real Madrid, given his upbringing across the city at Atletico. A move to the Nou Camp is not so far-fetched, though Liverpool can nip any such speculation in the bud by emerging from their recent troubled spell and restoring their credentials as one of Europe's major forces. There is some heartache to be endured first, as Liverpool's players try to come to terms with missing out on a place in the Champions League knock-out stages for the first time in seven years. Mascherano is adamant the process must be completed swiftly, particularly with a derby showdown with Everton looming at Goodison Park on Sunday. 'It is a strange feeling for everyone at the club to be in this position,' said the Argentinacaptain. 'We are all so very disappointed. The Champions League is a special competition for us but it has gone and we must start looking ahead. Strong attachment: Torres 'Now we are in another competition, and we will do all we can to win it. There will be no problem with motivation. The motivation for all of us is simply to play for Liverpool. We are representing a top side, and we all want to do well for Liverpool. 'We need to show that we are good players and realise that Liverpool deserve more from us. That is why we will do our best to win the Europa League. 'In the Premier League, we simply have to start winning again, because we are not in the top four. That is also strange for everyone at the club and all the supporters. 'In the last four years, we have always been up there, sometimes fighting for the title but always fighting to get into the Champions League. 'We need to do something about that, starting with a very important game against Everton. At least we won on the night in Budapest. 'That will give us a bit of confidence and now we have to take that forward by doing the same at Goodison Park.' 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