Houllier fights fatigue factor as the stakes rise

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The Independent Football

Week after week the dramatically divisive effect of Jesper Gronkjaer's winning goal for Chelsea in the final game of last season against Liverpool becomes more evident. It meant Champions' League football for his club, making them an even more inviting target for Roman Abram-ovich's largesse, and the poor consolation of the Uefa Cup for Liverpool.

Thus, while Chelsea were earning more lucre and praise in Rome last week, Gérard Houllier's side were staggering home with a pittance from Bucharest late on Friday afternoon, so drained by performing in a Seventies retro mudbath that they go into today's biggest game of the season at home to Manchester United without the benefit of a proper training session.

"Rest," was the best suggestion Houllier could offer as to his side's method of preparing, admitting: "I wouldn't say it was ideal preparation. It was a quagmire, a swamp, with water and then mud underneath. I can't hide my concern about how it's going to be. And United have had more time to recover."

Then, lest this should send the wrong message to his weary players - and their opponents - the optimist that lurks at the heart of every football manager took over: "I think we'll cope with the mental side. It was a very gutsy performance, the sort of fighting spirit which I could feel at Fulham in the last half-hour [last Sunday]. I don't hear anybody moaning. When we won three cups, we had to play almost every two or three days."

Those were the days when it looked, briefly, as though Liverpool were bridging the gap the old rivals had opened up over them; five trophies in a year and then, in May 2002, finishing as runners-up, ahead of United for the first time since 1991. But as we now know, Sir Alex Ferguson's charges - much to his disgust - had merely taken their foot off the pedal for long enough to be overtaken at the death. Last season, Gronkjaer's goal confirmed that Liverpool would slip back to fifth, their worst position in the four full seasons since Houllier took full control.

He insists that there have been only a couple of occasions this season when his team have not performed, like the miserable 1-0 defeat at Portsmouth; that they are making progress, on and off the field; and remain on schedule to win the championship as part of his five-year plan. Less contentious is the change to a more adventurous style in response to criticism, much resented, of last season's side as mere counter-attackers: "We are the team with the most shots [in the Premiership], 15 to 20 attempts every game. Even last season we were second only to United. When we won the three trophies we scored 127 goals - you can't think we scored 126 of them on breakaways."

But the numbers that matter - points - prompt the question of whether there is anything more to this season's Premiership than Arsenal, Chelsea and United. Liverpool are already eight points behind third-placed United, and after losing 2-1 at home to both the London sides, will forfeit more credibility with a similar scoreline this afternoon.

That means a lot of pressure in a fixture whose passionate significance does not escape Houllier, with his keen sense of Liverpool history: "Both sides respect each other, some of the [England] players have achieved something special together in Turkey and hope to be together in Portugal. And the two managers respect each other as well. It's a special game for the fans and players of both clubs."

With that in mind, he will be delighted to have Michael Owen's fresh legs ready to return after sitting out the trip to Romania. "Michael should be OK. I won't play mind-games with you." Whoever can he be thinking of?