Football: Houllier seeks perfect harmony

Premiership countdown: Experienced coach is planning to add some French rhythm to the Mersey beat; The new Liverpool management team is confident of striking the right blend to restore Anfield pride.

FROM BEING the team of the 1970s and 80s, Liverpool's fortunes have declined, not so much that they are back among the also-rans of English football, but to the extent that they are in danger of being labelled as perennial underachievers. The "Big Five" of days gone by has now become the big three and Liverpool are still one of those, but failure to mount a realistic championship challenge this season could mean them hanging on to the coat-tails of Manchester United and Arsenal in future, rather than competing with them on equal terms.

All of this is assuming, of course, that the established order of football in this country survives the threat of a European Super League and, as England's most successful side in Europe, Liverpool are naturally included in any such discussions. Indeed, you could say that, with the appointment as joint manager of Gerard Houllier, the so-called mastermind behind France's World Cup triumph, Liverpool have already taken an important step along that road. Certainly, the parochial values that served them so well before the advent of the Premier League at last seem to have given way to the reality of the modern game and if Houllier, together with the new coach Patrice Bergues, can work effectively with Roy Evans and the existing coaching staff, then Liverpool could end up with the best of both worlds.

Quite how the partnership will evolve will be closely monitored by a sceptical Merseyside audience but so far, Evans insists, it is business as usual. "It works very well at the moment," said Evans, whose own position has been severely compromised. It is hard to think of many other men who would have accepted such an arrangement, but then Evans is Liverpool through and through and probably had little choice. "There's been a fair amount of criticism and we accepted that, because people have tried it before and it hasn't always worked.

"But we seem to have the same mentality, the same football thoughts and the main reason we've done it is to help the players, to get them to perform better. You might say that's me saying I didn't have it all, but I don't think anybody's got it all and if we can add to my experience and Doug Livermore and the rest of the staff with Gerard and Patrice, then I think it'll be a great asset.

"He [Gerard] speaks great English but I'm just getting him to the stage where his language is becoming bad - that's my biggest influence on him."

For his part, Houllier admits there has not been time yet for him to exert his influence on proceedings but is anxious to point out: "It's Roy's and my influence, it's not just one man. It's a blending process. We try to work to harmonise and synchronise our way of defending, because that's where I think we need something. Offensive-wise we should be okay, but we need to settle down a little bit when we lose the ball."

Which is all very well, but the question remains: who picks the team? "We're picking the team," Evans said, "and not just as a twosome but the whole backroom staff. It's ever been thus at Liverpool. You might say only one guy has the final say and I suppose that's true, but we'll just have to toss a coin that day. There's no set rules about it, we've got to argue the case and, the time me and Gerard disagree, maybe Doug Livermore's got the right answer, or maybe Sammy Lee comes in. It's a new concept in England, or one that hasn't been particularly successful, but it works very well on the continent."

Pre-season form is never the most reliable guide to a team's fortunes when the real thing comes along, but it is impossible to get away from the fact that, as Houllier points out, there are still problems in Liverpool's defence. Of the three players signed during the summer, two - Steve Staunton and the Norwegian Vegard Heggem - are full-backs, but a central defender is the priority. Liverpool have been linked with at least half a dozen top names, from Jurgen Kohler to Taribo West, but they are still to get their man.

"The squad is never complete and we're on record as saying we're looking for somebody at the back," Evans said, "but it's been really tough getting somebody better than what we've already got and we're still looking. We've got a great squad as it is, but I think we can improve it by another player."

While Jamie Carragher is the favourite to start off alongside Phil Babb in the heart of the defence, elsewhere Liverpool should be spoilt for choice, especially in midfield once Jamie Redknapp returns to full fitness. They may not have signed a new midfield player, but, in Patrik Berger, Evans believes they may have one anyway. "Patrik's worked really hard over the summer," he said. "We've stressed to him the importance of his work for the team. With the ability he's got, and the finishing power, if he can put that together and work for the team then he's going to be a fantastic asset to us."

But inevitably the focus of most attention will be Michael Owen. At 18, can he sustain the sort of form he showed in his first full season, or will there be a reaction to his World Cup exploits?

In the recent friendly with Internazionale at Anfield, Owen reacted angrily to some challenges, weighing in with one or two wild lunges himself, and this season will be as much a test of his temperament as his strength.

"I think he's doing well," Evans said. "We know he's a sensible sort of guy, but what gets to him a little bit is being picked out from the rest of the team. He wants to be a team player, that's the whole basis of the way he talks, so when he does get singled out it's a bit of an embarrassment for him. That part of it is difficult, but the rest he handles pretty well."

The task for Evans and Houllier will be to watch for signs of fatigue in Owen, but Evans said: "We said that last year, didn't we? We said we didn't expect him to play all the games but he did, and in the end he was strong enough mentally and physically. But again we've got to be aware throughout the season, if there's any loss of fitness or tiredness or if he gets too much attention from the media.

"No one wants to take Michael out of the limelight and say he can't do interviews full stop, but there's a limit to how much he can do. Occasionally he's going to have to say `no', and I think that's only fair to him."

For Owen, at least, the sky still seems the limit and, although the old Anfield Boot Room is in the process of being renamed the Salle a Chaussures, if an unlikely Anglo-French alliance can be made to work then Liverpool's own limits should extend as far as qualification for the Champions' League - at least.

"That's the status of this club," Evans added, "and the only thing we should be aiming for."

LIVERPOOL IN THE 1990s

SEASON LEAGUE FA CUP LEAGUE CUP EUROPE

1989-90 Winners Semi-final 3rd round Heysel ban

90-91 Runners-up 5th round 3rd round Heysel ban

91-92 6th Winners 4th round Uefa q-fnls

92-93 6th 3rd round 4th round CWC 2nd rd

93-94 8th 3rd round 4th round Not qualify

94-95 4th 6th round Winners Not qualify

95-96 3rd Runners-up 4th round Uefa 2nd rd

96-97 4th 4th round 5th round Uefa s-fnls

97-98 3rd 3rd round Semi-final Uefa 2nd rd

Compiled by John Baldock

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