Tonight's midfield confrontation between Liverpool FC's Steve Gerrard and Bayer 04 Leverkusen's Michael Ballack offers a fascinating contrast in styles. The Englishman's brawn against the German's brain would be too simplistic a way of looking at it, but it is definitely an encounter along those lines.
Indeed the outcome of their UEFA Champions League first leg quarter-final at Anfield looks like being decided in midfield. If there is one quality which Leverkusen lack, it is physical power, which Gerrard and his German team-mate Dietmar Hamann, possess in abundance. But Ballack has other strings to his bow.
He has already been paid the ultimate compliment by being chosen as FC Bayern München's replacement for Stefan Effenberg, when the great German midfield player bids farewell to the 1. Bundesliga at the end of this season. Bayern see Ballack as the ideal replacement and have activated a release clause in Ballack's contract which means he can leave Leverkusen for €12.9m.
It is only during this past year that Ballack has managed to win over his critics. For a long time he was regarded as a luxury the German national team could ill afford, in much the same way that certain England managers viewed Glenn Hoddle in his playing days. Ballack was criticised for his work-rate and his commitment. Lothar Matthäus once said of him that he was "happy when he has played well for half a season - he must work harder".
He seemed to have jumped from the frying pan into the fire when, three years ago, he left 1. FC Kaiserslautern, where he frequently clashed with the coach Otto Rehhagel, to join Leverkusen. His new coach, Berti Vogts, was equally critical of him and it was only this season when Klaus Topmöller took over that he began to add some graft to his craft.
World Cup chance
National head Rudi Völler has also encouraged him and he was outstanding in both legs of Germany's FIFA World Cup play-off against Ukraine. However, Liverpool will have noted how he was less of a presence when confronted by the physically imposing Patrick Vieira in the 4-1 defeat to Arsenal FC in February and one can expect Gerrard to follow the Frenchman's example.
Of course, there is much more to Gerrard than just his fierce tackling qualities. He has become one of the best passers in the Liverpool and England teams, noticeably with balls struck early to forwards Michael Owen and Emile Heskey, his attacking team-mates for club and country.
Both men are prodigious goalscorers from midfield and typically the Liverpudlian is best noted for packing a punch with his free-kicks while Ballack tends to score with curlers. Gerrard's weakness is his prospensity to injury, though, and he was rated doubtful for tonight after missing Saturday's FA Premiership victory over Charlton Athletic FC with a groin complaint. However, manager Gerard Houllier says he expects Gerrard to be fit for the match, allowing the fascinating duel with Ballack to commence.
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