Houllier lifted by return of key men

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Gerard Houllier was in a defiant mood as he prepared for tonight's Uefa Cup fourth-round tie with Marseille.

Gerard Houllier was in a defiant mood as he prepared for tonight's Uefa Cup fourth-round tie with Marseille.

A week ago in Bulgaria, the Liverpool manager was a worried man, shaken by death threats and slogans written on walls calling for his head. Now, buoyed by an impressive victory over Levski Sofia, the support of his players and the rallying of Liverpool's fans, Houllier returns to European action with a big weight lifted from his shoulders.

He knows only too well that this is a game between the great under-achievers from either side of the Channel - and he did not miss the chance to make the point that sacking managers mid-season achieves little. Marseille's season has not been a success - they were dumped out of the Champions' League in the group stages and recently parted company with their coach, Alain Perrin, after a poor run, to be replaced by Jose Anigo.

Results have not improved: Marseille are sixth and their season is in ruins and Houllier, who many believe has also been facing the end of the road, was quick to point out: "They have got rid of their manager - but I do not think it has improved things there."

The Frenchman's critics may be just waiting for the next slip-up, but with the previously frustrated Kop preparing a mosaic to proclaim their support for club and manager at tonight's first-leg match, Houllier knows he is safe, for a while at least.

Houllier spent a long time listing his woes to the massed ranks of the French media, once again feeling he had to explain away the problems of a disjointed season. But with his senior players fit again and talking up their backing for the manager, Houllier is confident enough to look forward with optimism.

Four games in 10 days, including three vital league games, can further change the face of Houllier's season - and he knows it. He said: "The heavy criticism that was on us - the team and me - has made the players stick together more.

"The only way to answer the critics is to play the football we have started to play. We have lost one in 10, I am not surprised at that - and it has been only two defeats since mid-December.

"We have a lot of players back from injury, there is a freshness about them and I believe we can make it a very exciting end to the season. We had two excellent wins against Sofia, the players are enjoying their football and we have a momentum now to go on and achieve our aims this season. Since Christmas we have lost at Tottenham and then the cup tie at Portsmouth, apart from that we have gone something like 16 games and lost just two and I believe we have played some good stuff. I feel we have started to play some good football, when we have people back from injury it creates competition."

League form will be back on the agenda on Sunday at Southampton, then Wednesday and Saturday at home to Portsmouth and Wolves, respectively.

Those games could be more important now to Houllier than the Uefa Cup - but the fact it is a French side arriving on Merseyside is enough to galvanise the former coach of their national team.

He said: "I feel extra motivation because I am a French coach against a French side. I want to win, but I also feel that the next three league games are just as important."