Football: Smicer skills win over the Kop

VLADIMIR SMICER has suffered an anguished baptism to English football. The Czech midfielder appeared to be one fancy-dan foreigner too many for Liverpool fans to cope with.

However, when he was substituted with 10 minutes to go on Monday as Liverpool cruised to sixth place in the table after a 3-1 win over Bradford City, the little winger was given a standing ovation from the Anfield faithful. Smicer's darting, explosive runs were the highlight of his best performance for Liverpool so far, and with a little more luck he would also have had a couple of goals.

Times look to be changing. A pounds 4m signing from Lens in the summer, Smicer has arguably found it hardest to settle among the Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier's foreign legion. Fleet of foot, light of touch and frightened of his own shadow was the dismissive verdict from the Kop, but Houllier has recently pushed the Czech forward into an attacking role alongside Titi Camara and he finally looks to be getting to grips with his new environment, just as Houllier's new-look team also appear to be getting their act together.

"Vladimir is a good player, everyone can see that, he can take the ball, turn, twist, deliver some good passes, score," said Houllier. "Just look at his record with the national team. He was unlucky when he first came here because he had a bad ankle injury and didn't do the pre-season preparation like the others. He was in and out of the squad then because of his injuries. I hope now that he is about to start showing everyone what he can do, but he is still testing himself in the English game. It's tougher here, it's quicker here, and as he gets used to that he will be okay for us. He will do the job."

His countryman and friend Patrik Berger added his weight, saying: "I think he will become very important to the team very soon. It's difficult when you come to a big club and you have injuries straight away. But he is fit now and in a few games will show everyone why we brought him to Anfield." With Michael Owen due to return on Saturday at home to Derby, Smicer is likely to return to a wider role.

Houllier has settled on a back four now, with central defenders Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz forming an improving partnership, while Dietmar Hamann has finally overcome ankle problems and is installed as the defensive midfielder. At the weekend Liverpool will be short of only Robbie Fowler from what is emerging as their strongest side and then Houllier will have the problem of rotating his players to keep Camara and Jamie Carragher involved.

Houllier admitted to starting such a policy during the Bradford City game when Jamie Redknapp was called off to allow Carragher into midfield. "The players have to understand that with the quality of the squad we have now, it is not a dishonour to go out of the team, to be substituted," he said. "Here people think you should play with the same eleven. But sometimes you have to be confident and bring on fresh legs. Jamie wasn't injured, just a bit tired.

"Those fresh legs, when Vegard Heggem came on, brought us the crucial third goal. Players will be rotated. Carragher played well against West Ham, he may be in against Derby, but I must be mindful that he has an important England Under-21 game coming up when both teams will be fighting to to reach the European finals. Then we have a tough game at Sunderland.

"So players will be rotated. You don't just substitute someone because he's not playing well. You are considering the next game, the strengths of certain situations, that is how it is in modern football."

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