Houllier sees future in double vision

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The Independent Football

Speaking for the first time since the open-heart surgery which saved his life, the Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, said his team was "10 games away from greatness", which would be achieved by winning both the Premiership and the European Cup.

As he prepared for the first of those 10 matches, a European Cup quarter-final with Bayer Leverkusen at Anfield tonight, Houllier remarked that the squad he guided to three trophies last season had improved in his absence.

"They are better, physically, technically and tactically; the best is yet to come," he said. "We now have a double vision; to win the title and the Champions' League. The players are special, they are my true heroes. When you take into account the adversity they have had to endure in losing a manager and then taking some criticism, they have bounced back wonderfully."

The same might be said of Houllier, who said that of the 6,000 get-well cards and faxes sent to him after his surgery at Broadgreen Hospital, one stuck in his mind: "It was from a fan who wrote: 'You would not allow a player to come back unless he was 100 per-cent fit, and don't you dare not do the same to yourself'. I am ready."

Tonight's first leg cannot possibly match the frenzy Anfield worked itself up into when Houllier made his first public appearance on the bench as they overcame Roma 2-0 in the last second group match.

With Steven Gerrard expected to make a full recovery from a groin injury, it might be easy to underestimate Klaus Toppmöller's side, although Houllier pointed out the fact that they lead the Bundesliga and topped a group which included Deportivo La Coruña, Arsenal and Juventus.

Toppmöller's greatest concern is dealing with the pace of Michael Owen in the absence of Jens Nowotny, although, since the Bayer Leverkusen captain failed completely to handle the striker in England's 5-1 rout of Germany, his suspension may be a blessing.

The Leverkusen coach is expected to drop midfielder Carsten Ramelow into defence while Thomas Brdaric should replace the veteran striker Ulf Kirsten. "It is very hard to score against Liverpool's strong defence because of their aerial power," he said. "But we have to play like real men and accept the physical battle. If we do that, we can make the semi-finals."

Liverpool (probable, 4-4-2): Dudek; Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Riise; Smicer, Hamann, Gerrard, Murphy; Heskey, Owen.

Bayer Leverkusen (probable, 4-4-2): Butt; Sebescen; Lucio, Ramelow, Placente, Schneider; Ballack, Basturk, Ze Roberto, Neuville, Brdaric.

Houllier's relish, page 23