Henchoz the low-volume high achiever

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The Independent Online

Thursday lunchtime, and there is a welcome diversion from their own team's plight as the Everton-supporting cabbies at Lime Street station enthusiastically debate the previous night's events at St Mary's Stadium before one delivers you to "Satan's playground" (aka Liverpool's Melwood training ground). "Eh, they're even worse than our lot at the moment," he hoots en route.

A slight overstatement, you are compelled to point out, but these are disconcerting times for Phil Thompson's men. Indeed, the Liverpool Echo has a stark analysis: "This defeat was bad. Really bad. It was an embarrassment." And "Title pretensions seem frankly pretentious today" followed by "Play like this at Highbury and it will be a massacre".

At Melwood, Thompson's face looks as if you could not only crack eggs open on it but fry them too. Having just accompanied his team back from the 2-0 defeat at Southampton, you could appreciate why. Searching for a solid, convincing performance the previous night had been as futile as scrutinising the "departure" board of South- West Trains for an entry earlier in the week. There was a long wait.

Yet, as the glitterati in the team had too frequently pulsed and faded, Liverpool could at least be grateful that, in a contest in which Sami Hyypia had conceded a penalty and John Arne Riise had scored an own goal, one of the side's less vaunted performers had been his redoubtable self.

It is perhaps on nights like this that you appreciate the true merit of such a formidable character, who appears to have been around for many years but is still only 27. Evidently the lack of glamour status does not trouble Stéphane Henchoz, a stylish and disciplined centre-back. "In any team you can't have 11 big stars," he says in his quiet manner. "There will always be favourite players, but after that it is important that you have people who work hard, do their job and are not necessarily written about in the papers. I am quite happy with that. Usually, when I leave the pitch I know whether I've done my job well, or not so well, or if I was bad. I don't need anyone to tell me."

He adds, with a pensive smile: "Sometimes the manager thinks a bit different, of course. But we're never far away from agreement."

The manager, of course, is still convalescing after heart surgery, and there is an inevitability about the first mutterings that Gérard Houllier's absence has been manifesting itself in recent results. "That's unfair," says Henchoz. "Gérard's last game was against Leeds. After that we had a lot of good results with Phil. It's not a problem of the manager or staff; it's down to the players. When we are on the pitch, what can the manager do? Maybe bring on three substitutes or at half-time he can speak to us, but that's it. It's important that the team shows its character and the guys show their real personality. We know we have a really difficult game on Sunday after a few bad results. We must pick ourselves up and show our real selves."

Although defensively Liverpool's record compares with anyone but Leeds, Henchoz accepts that there are signs of vulnerability. "I think until the game against Chelsea [when they suffered a 4-0 defeat] we were doing well," he says. "But since then we have played seven games and conceded too many goals. If we want to be a top team we have to be solid at the back. But that starts with the strikers. If they don't close down it is difficult for the midfielders and then it's difficult for the back four. It's all about teamwork."

Today's confrontation brings together the magnificent if moody Nicolas Anelka and his prolific successor at Highbury, Thierry Henry. Henchoz doesn't have particularly pleasant memories of either in opposition but the Swiss brackets Henry with Gabriel Batistuta and Patrick Kluivert as the best strikers he and his partner, captain Hyypia, have encountered this season. "A player like him is so difficult to prepare for," says Henchoz. "He can do everything. That is the problem. Sometimes you have a big, strong striker and you know it will be a physical battle but he won't beat you because he's not the quickest. But against Henry it is different. He's so quick and he can strike inside and outside the box. He's got quick feet and he's not bad in the air."

However, he is also acutely aware of Anelka's menace. "I played against him when I was at Blackburn," says Henchoz. "I remember once we lost 4-0, and he scored at least once. For me, he's a top striker. Maybe he didn't have the best of times at Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain and it will take him time to become familiar with a new team, but he knows already a lot about English football. He can speak English and knows what life is like here. It's just a matter of adjusting to the other players. But I think he's shown already that he's coming back to his best. I'm just glad I'm on the same side and don't have to mark him."

The latter part of Henchoz's two years at Ewood Park, culminating in relegation, was, he recalls, "the worst memory in my career". Fortunately, Houllier thought enough of him to bid £3.75m. "He took me when I was injured and had to wait three months for me to play for him. But that showed Gérard had a lot of confidence in me. When I started playing I knew he was right behind me. Training with good players every day, you improve automatically if you put the work in."

However, Henchoz concedes that he does suffer occasional self-doubt. "I'm never very sure of myself. I can't say when I go on the pitch, I have great confidence. I'm always thinking about the next game and what striker I will be playing against. But it is not as bad as when I was young. Then I worried a lot. I couldn't sleep very well. But in 10 or 11 years I have learnt a lot about how to approach a game and be more cool." Henchoz, who is married and enjoys his computer, the cinema and music – "everything from classical to techno, Italian, French" – was initially troubled by the prospect of moving to England. He had been acquired by Roy Hodgson from Hamburg, having been his protégé when both were at Neuchatel Xamax, a club he joined at the age of 16 after leaving the small village of Billen.

"I was a young kid when I first watched Liverpool on television in Europe," he said. "My father finished work late one day and I had to watch it on my own on TV and it stayed in my mind. I particularly remember Ian Rush and Alan Hansen. I could never have imagined that one day I would play for them."

Many view Henchoz and Hyypia as the best Liverpool centre-back pairing since Hansen and Mark Lawrenson. Thompson believes that the modern-day duo can also become Anfield icons. "Being compared with the great players of the past is a point of reference, something to aspire to," says Henchoz. "After I have retired it would be great to be regarded like that at one of the world's top clubs. For now, I am proud just to pull on their shirt." At the moment, Liverpool are pleased that he does.

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