Houllier looking to relieve the pressure

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The Independent Football

Gerard Houllier arrived at work to see slogans being scrubbed from the walls of Liverpool's training ground and insisted that he can withstand the abuse and criticism engulfing the club.

The French coach, under pressure following Sunday's FA Cup replay defeat at Portsmouth, must now channel the frustrations and anger of his own players into Uefa Cup success. The Bulgarian side Levski Sofia visit Anfield tonight for the third-round first leg.

Houllier shrugged off criticism of his underachieving side: "The slogans were not very tasteful, but we will keep strong. I trust my players - that is the main thing," he said.

Only a victory against Sofia - beaten just once all season in domestic competition - will appease many Liverpool fans. Houllier added: "[The players] are hurt by what has happened. And some team has got to pay for our frustration. We will make sure that what is said and what is written does not affect us because this is a big club."

"Obviously the result was not what we expected at Portsmouth, but I do not accept we did not deserve to go through. We will live with that."

And Houllier, who will be without Emile Heskey (back), Florent Sinama-Pongolle (ankle), Vladimir Smicer (Achilles) and Salif Diao (calf) against the Bulgarians, believes his players can bounce back.

"There are two sorts of fans. Those that understand what we have been doing at this club and those who do not," he said.

"When I leave, be it two years' time, three years' time or next year, I do not know, all that matters is the progress of the club in the last few years. The board knows that. We started to change things around in 1999 and picked up six trophies, one the Uefa Cup. We are not happy about last season, nor this one, but we have 13 League games to play this time around - and the Uefa Cup."

"There are a lot of young players with promise who have come to this club, and they do have European experience. It is not the right time to finalise an assessment of our record, some fans know that. Others don't. This is our last chance of silverware, and I know we will give it our best shot right to the end of the season, as well as in the League. Before Portsmouth we had lost only one of the previous 12. We were improving and playing better. I am still confident.

"Milan Baros is back fit now and I think that second-half performance from him at Portsmouth showed how much we had missed him."

The Frenchman added: "I understand the frustration around the FA Cup result, and it is shared from within our camp. What the fans say is part of the territory ... but we have changed things around, we have put the club in a different direction in terms of expansion and facilities.

"People forget we have reached the Champions' League twice, and we aim to get back into it. We have been hurt by injuries and results have not mirrored the performances. But I am still very hopeful for the future.

"We will not be as unlucky next season as we have been this season. Sometimes you have to go through adversity to improve. The team and squad remain together, we celebrate together and we suffer together. Sometimes that is the incentive."

Meanwhile, the defender Jamie Carragher has urged the club's supporters to hold their fire on Houllier until the end of the season. "It's better to reserve judgement until the end of the season before deciding if it's been good or bad," Carragher said. "If we get into the Champions' League and pick up some silverware it might not be as bad as people are making out."

Liverpool's players have a chance to redeem themselves against Levski Sofia, and Carragher wants his team-mates to stand up and be counted. "When criticism is flying about, some players do go into their shell. You have to be strong enough to take it, though," he added.

"We are well rewarded and taking criticism is part of the job. It shouldn't stop you taking responsibility and wanting to receive the ball during matches."

Liverpool (from): Kirkland, Finnan, Henchoz, Hyypia, Biscan, Carragher, Riise, Diouf, Gerrard, Hamann, Murphy, Le Tallec, Cheyrou, Traoré, Welsh, Baros, Owen, Heskey, Kewell, Dudek.

Levski Sofia (from): Ivankov, Petkov, Stoyanov, Topuzakov, Stankov, Wagner, Milanov, Angelov, Temile, Simonovich, Telkijski, Ivanov, Bukarev, Gerasimov, Golovskoj, Chilikov, Ivanov, Markov, Borimirov, Kolev, Vidolov, Eromoigbe.

Referee: R Temmink (Netherlands).