Houllier to invest in new midfield for Europe

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The Independent Football

Maybe because surviving open-heart surgery offers you a different perspective on life, and maybe because he had not expected to reach the quarter-finals of the European Cup, yesterday Gérard Houllier appeared relaxed in defeat.

Like his compatriot Edith Piaf, he claimed to have had no regrets. Liverpool's first tilt at the Champions' League took them further than either Manchester United's or Arsenal's debuts in the competition. Although Leeds and Chelsea also reached the knock-out stages at the first time of asking, both failed to qualify for the following season's tournament, which Houllier's side will surely do.

It was ironic that a club berated for its efficient, workmanlike attitude to European games should have lost so spectacularly when within touching distance of the semi-finals. It would, however, be hard to argue that Liverpool deserved to be among the four best teams in Europe; they had, after all, won only two of their final eight Champions' League games. But to have come through unscathed in the Stadio Olimpico, the Nou Camp and the intimidating Ali Sami Yen in Istanbul and then to fall to pieces in the BayArena, which looks like a football ground designed by Lego, would have been galling indeed.

"We were six minutes from the semi-final of the European Cup, where we would have expected to meet Manchester United, a team who in our last six games we have drawn with once and beaten five times," Houllier remarked at the team hotel on the far bank of the Rhine. "But I am not overwhelmed by disappointment. Bayer Leverkusen had two very good games against us. Few teams can match the physique of our play as Leverkusen did. In the last 10 minutes we did not seem to have the physical stamina we usually have."

Houllier will make changes. After a season in which they had won three trophies, he largely kept faith with his squad, signing only John Arne Riise and Jerzy Dudek in the summer. However, having made some £20m from this Champions' League run, Houllier indicated he would use the money to beef up his squad. Given that he conceded Leverkusen had won the match in midfield, the centre of the pitch appears an obvious place to start the fine-tuning which may be all Liverpool require.

Abel Xavier aside, the defence is likely to remain the same. That a team so adept at keeping clean sheets as Liverpool should have conceded three goals in 20 minutes was bewildering but many suspected the turning point had come moments before Michael Ballack headed home the first of Leverkusen's second-half goals. In retrospect, Michael Owen's squandering of three clear chances and the substitution of Dietmar Hamann appeared pivotal.

If Owen looked downcast as he checked in at Cologne Airport, it was not just because he was troubled by his injured foot. It would be laughable to doubt his ability but Owen's first taste of the Champions' League has not been altogether rewarding, and Houllier pointed out that his tally of two goals in the competition proper was bettered by Jari Litmanen, a peripheral figure at Anfield.

Emile Heskey, whose header against Roma was his only Champions' League goal, was similarly unprolific. For a pair likely to lead England's attack in the World Cup, this may be a worrying sign. "I would be concerned if they were 33 or 34, but my main strikers are 23 and 22," Houllier said. "We need to give them time."

Untypically, he did not give Hamann much sympathy. Although the German had an unspectacular match, his replacement by the entirely ineffectual Vladimir Smicer triggered a disastrous loss of control. "I thought Hamann could have done better," said Houllier. "[Yildiray] Basturk was getting into his back all the time." He argued Smicer could have exploited Leverkusen's need to press forward by supporting Owen on the break, but in the event he appeared overwhelmed.

Steven Gerrard, too, was anonymous when compared to Ballack but again Houllier took comfort in his youth. "He is 22 and he will not sell himself as he did against Leverkusen," he said. "Ballack is older and Steve will be a greater player than him. He has all the attributes to make a world-class player; he has skill, power and he can score. But Ballack put in a great performance which was decisive in that game."

Ballack will not be at Leverkusen next season, having agreed a deal that will take him to Bayern Munich in the summer, while Ze Roberto, another architect of German victory, may well follow him out of the BayArena. The Leverkusen coach, Klaus Toppmöller, wondered aloud how a side which may yet win three trophies could be losing key players. Perversely, as Liverpool journeyed from the Rhine to the Mersey, the future may be brighter for the side which lost on Tuesday.

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