Gerrard, Suarez lead Premier League’s nearly men

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When football returns, Liverpool will be just two wins from sealing the club’s first Premier League title — ending a 30-year wait that stretches back to the club’s last domestic championship in 1990, three years before Manchester United emerged as champions at the end of the inaugural Premier League campaign in 1992-93.

Since then, a series of iconic players have tried and failed to clinch a Premier League winners’ medal, with former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard perhaps the biggest name of all to end his career without getting his hands on the Premier League trophy. Monday marks the six-year anniversary of Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea, which ultimately ended the Merseysiders’ 2013-14 title challenge.

But Gerrard is not alone, so ESPN has selected the Best XI of players — not including the current Liverpool squad — who have graced the Premier League but failed to claim a winners’ medal.

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Goalkeeper: Brad Friedel

A tough one. All the great goalkeepers — Peter Schmeichel, Petr Cech, David Seaman — won at least one Premier League title, but there have been a number of ultra-consistent, long-serving keepers who would have been worthy of a winners’ medal. Nigel Martyn, with Leeds and Everton, was close, but Brad Friedel racked up 450 Premier League appearances with Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham, and the former USMNT No. 1’s longevity was a mark of his class and reliability.

Right-back: Rob Jones

Although Rob Jones made 155 Premier League appearances for Liverpool during the 1990s, his story is one of what might have been due to a succession of injuries denying him the glittering career that many had predicted when he broke into the team as a 19-year-old — 48 hours after signing from Crewe Alexandra in 1991, Jones was named man of the match after marking Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs at Old Trafford. Jones had pace, awareness, the ability to defend and break forward and Liverpool fans still regard him as one of the club’s best-ever full-backs.

Centre-back: Jamie Carragher

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Jamie Carragher won nine major trophies as a Liverpool player, including a Champions League in 2005, but Premier League success eluded him during his 16-year career at Anfield. Although he also performed at full-back and in defensive midfield, Carragher was ultimately a commanding centre-half who blended toughness with the ability to read the game and lead from the back. Carragher made 737 appearances for Liverpool, which sums up his ability.

Centre-back: Marcel Desailly

This slot could have gone to Newcastle’s Philippe Albert or Leeds and Spurs defender Jonathan Woodgate, but even though he arrived at Chelsea after his peak years with AC Milan in 1998, Marcel Desailly was still a hugely influential figure in the Premier League during his six-year spell at Stamford Bridge. The French World Cup winner was a rock at the heart of Chelsea’s back four alongside Frank Leboeuf, where his physicality and game awareness made him an outstanding performer.

Left-back: Stuart Pearce

Leighton Baines has been Mr. Consistency at left-back for over a decade with Wigan and Everton, but to select the former England defender would be to overlook the quality of Stuart Pearce, who set the mould for the modern-day full-back at Nottingham Forest before going on to play for Newcastle, West Ham and Manchester City. Pearce, who captained England, was a ferocious tackler, but he also scored goals, created them and dominated every inch of his flank of the pitch.

Midfield: Steven Gerrard

You cannot overstate Steven Gerrard’s status as a legend of the Premier League era. The Liverpool captain had absolutely everything as a midfielder. He could defend, attack, tackle, burst from box to box, score crucial goals and spectacular ones and, on many occasions, he inspired Liverpool to glory, never more so than during the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan. He had everything except a Premier League winners’ medal and, even now, that is hard to believe.

Midfield: Xabi Alonso

The likes of Paul Pogba, Javier Mascherano, Gustavo Poyet and Ruud Gullit have all failed to win the Premier League, but none have made quite the same impact in the division as Xabi Alonso, whose five-year stint at Liverpool ended in 2009 with just three winners’ medals in the Champions League, Super Cup and FA Cup. The Spain international, who went on to enjoy great success with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, was one of the best long-range passers of the Premier League era and was the perfect foil for Gerrard.

Gareth Bale has won four Champions Leagues with Real Madrid and a La Liga title too, but he never came close to a Premier League medal with Southampton or Spurs. The Welshman rejected Manchester United when he signed for Spurs in 2007, so it may have been a different story had he teamed up with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford. Not yet 31, Bale may still return to England win the Premier League, but he hasn’t won one yet.

Forward: Gianfranco Zola

Gianfranco Zola was 30 when he arrived at Chelsea from Parma in 1996, with his best years seemingly behind him, but the Italian proved his doubters wrong during a seven-year stint at Stamford Bridge in which he became one of the most influential players in the Premier League era. Zola’s professionalism and perfectionism influenced those around him, but he was primarily a match-winner, scoring 59 goals and assisting 42 during 229 Premier League appearances.

Luis Suarez will always divide opinion. A brilliant, talismanic goal scorer on the one hand and a magnet for controversy on the other, with the Uruguayan receiving lengthy bans for racially abusing Patrice Evra and biting Branislav Ivanovic during his three and a half years at Anfield. Suarez the footballer was outstanding for Liverpool, though, with 69 goals and 23 assists in 110 Premier League games.

At 26, Harry Kane still has time on his side to win the Premier League, but he may have to leave Tottenham to do so. With 136 goals in 201 league games for Spurs, the England captain could be the key signing for a club with title aspirations, but he has yet to win anything in his career and the wait goes on. The slot could have gone to Robbie Fowler or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Kane could end up as the league’s highest-ever scorer and not win the trophy.

Manager: Kevin Keegan

Kevin Keegan is remembered for one moment, above all others, as a manager — his finger-jabbing, “I would love it” rant in response to Sir Alex Ferguson’s so-called mind games during Newcastle’s title run-in with Manchester United in 1996. Newcastle blew a 12-point lead and finished second that season, but prior to that, Keegan had revived a club heading for the third tier and built a hugely exciting team that became a Premier League force. Keegan was unlucky to be up against a United side at its peak. Otherwise, Newcastle would have won the title and history would have judged him and his team differently.

Substitutes: Pepe Reina (GK), Stephen Carr (DF), Philippe Albert (DF), Ruud Gullit (MF), Paul Pogba (MF), Steve McManaman (MF), Robbie Fowler (FW)

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