Houllier calls on referees to protect striker Sinama-Pongolle

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The Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, insists his makeshift strikeforce will always get his support, despite one being branded a cheat and the other a failure in recent weeks.

Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Emile Heskey have both been on the receiving end of criticism but will lead the line again for the Reds in the Carling Cup against Bolton tonight as the holders attempt to secure a place in the quarter-finals.

The Birmingham City manager, Steve Bruce, felt Sinama-Pongolle made the most of a tangle with Kenny Cunningham to win what turned out to be a pivotal penalty on Sunday, but Houllier disagrees and believes the French striker needs more protection from referees.

"Florent is strong enough to handle things like that," Houllier said. "I have been disappointed with things that have been said. Did people see the tackle by Damien Johnson on him earlier? That was disgraceful. The boy is quick and it is down to the referee to protect the strikers, otherwise you will not get any football any more."

Sinama-Pongolle and Heskey will maintain their front-line pairing in Michael Owen's continued absence with a thigh problem. Heskey, who scored his 100th career goal with an overhead kick against Birmingham, continues to have the support of Houllier despite being the butt of jokes from opposing supporters.

The manager said: "Emile knows that in this camp we all back and support him. He is a Liverpool player and he will get that support whatever happens, from fans and manager."

Houllier also said that his long-term injury victims Milan Baros and Jamie Carragher are a long way ahead of schedule in their recovery and could be playing again a month earlier than expected.

Houllier's Bolton counterpart, Sam Allardyce, will resist any bids for the Nigeria captain, Jay-Jay Okocha, when the transfer window opens next month. Instead the Bolton manager has indicated he is ready to offer the gifted midfielder a new deal.

Allardyce is naturally keen to retain his services, especially because any potential transfer cash would be used only to service the club's debts. "I would think possibly there will be bids for Jay-Jay," he said. "But I thought that would happen last summer rather than this January. There wasn't a better player in the Premiership for the last 12-15 games of the season. But no amount of money will encourage me to sell him, because I can't use it. We've got to pay the debt off."

While Allardyce is resigned to losing Okocha for the African Nations Cup, he is hoping to limit the player's time away over a crucial period. "I hope to have a chat with the [national] coach at some point," he said. "We will see if there is any leeway in nicking a game or two out of the preparation time. Then we let him go and play on that stage."

Okocha could be in from the start against the Carling Cup-holders. But Allardyce is resigned to being without the injured Stelios Giannakopolous (back), Nicky Hunt (shoulder) and Kevin Nolan (Achilles).