By Trevor Haylett & Patrick Hart
The warning to Europe's leading sides from Steven Gerrard as the Liverpool FC captain embarks on another campaign in the UEFA Champions League that brought glory to Anfield last season, is that he is still improving.
The statement comes from Gerrard's own lips. Just 50 days after cradling the trophy following Liverpool's miraculous victory in Istanbul against AC Milan, the England player is preparing to face Welsh club Total Network Solutions FC in tonight's first qualifying round tie and declares: "I think each year I'm getting better and better."
The rewards for the 25-year-old's progress are plain to see with the ink still fresh on a new four-year contract but no one should be in any doubt that it has taken hard graft and sacrifice.
'Learning every day'
"I've just tried to work hard and learn as many things as possible," Gerrard told uefa.com. "I've tried to improve all aspects of my game. I love football and I try to learn every day and be the best I can be."
It looked at one stage last week as though Chelsea FC or Real Madrid CF would be the beneficiaries of the midfielder's quest for perfection. But in a startling about-turn, Gerrard decided to stay with the club he joined as an eight-year-old.
More trophies wanted
He is determined that the Champions League triumph should be just the start of a regular flow of trophies into the Anfield cabinet. "I love scoring any goal, and to score in a final was perfect, but the most important thing is winning the game," he added.
The winning dream
"I can't relax. It's difficult. Once I come away from the training ground, I try to forget about what's happened, spend time with my family, and do things to relax, but it is difficult. I'm thinking about football 24 hours a day - dreaming of winning.
Confidence from coaches
"I didn't think, when I started playing football, that I'd be sitting here today a Champions League winner. But every coach I've worked under has given me confidence, they think I can be a good player. And I've just tried to learn as many things as I could from all the different players I've played with and all the different coaches."
Rafael Benítez is the latest Liverpool manager to bring his experience to bear on a player who will be one of England's key performers at next year's FIFA World Cup finals, assuming England qualify.
"He's talked to me about my work-rate, he wants me to be clever with my movement," Gerrard explained. "We've watched tapes together and I speak to him every day about what he wants me to do, what he wants me to improve on."
Dad knows best
However, neither Benítez, nor the assorted other coaches who have helped hone Gerrard's abilities, can claim to know his talent better than his father. "I've worked with a lot of good coaches, and played with some fantastic players, but my dad was the one who bought me my first football boots, balls and goals, who paid for me to travel, drove me here, there and everywhere, and without him I wouldn't be sitting here.
'Better than me!'
"He's watched me in every game, amateur and professional, and he's been there ever since I kicked my first ball. He was also at the Champions League final and has probably been the most important person in my career. He even says he was better than me, but there are no tapes to show it!"
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