Houllier: We are an exciting team

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The Independent Football

Stability and success are enough to satisfy almost any fan base. Any, that is, but a growing section of Liverpool's, who believe there is one S missing: sexiness. No matter that Gérard Houllier has emptied the dressing room of much dead wood and and deposited several trophies in the boardroom cabinet; elements of the club faithful, not to mention plenty of former players who are now involved with various branches of the media, are clamouring for pretty football as well.

Such demands puzzle Houllier. So, too, does the fact that Liverpool are so often labelled as boring. So far as the Frenchman is concerned, the criticisms are not just unfair, they are also plain wrong. No sooner had the question been put to him on Friday than he leapt to the defence of his players. "This image people have of us is completely incorrect," Houllier said, as his team prepared for what is already being described as a must-win game against Aston Villa today. "People have had this idea put in their heads and it won't go away. I find it very frustrating."

Houllier then produced a sheet detailing all the statistics for last season. He pointed to the column titled "total shots" and asked: "Who is top?" The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Manchester United. "And who is second?"

Like any well prepared lawyer, Houllier knows his facts and figures. The name lying just below the champions is that of Liverpool. His team. "Actually," he added, "until the last two games of last year [2-1 defeats by Manchester City and Chelsea] we were the best. That means we must be creating lots of chances, which suggests that we can hardly be boring."

Yet, despite Houllier's protests, the image of his team is one of caution and counterattack. "Look, that is simply not true," says the Frenchman, who has won five trophies during his four-and-a-half seasons in sole charge at Anfield. "We are not at the same level as Man-chester United or Arsenal in terms of fluency, but we do have lots of very creative and exciting players. Think of guys like Harry [Kewell], Michael [Owen] and Dioufy [El-Hadji Diouf]: they are real talents, and that's why I tell them not to pay any attention to what they might read."

Houllier is not yet facing what certain sections of the press have been labelling a "crisis", but he is undoubtedly under serious scrutiny from sections of his own supporters. Not that this appears to concern the manager. "I don't feel the pressure," he said, "but I do know what the expectation is. Because we have consistently got better year on year until last season, people, including myself, want us to be up there all the time competing. I accept that."

What Houllier finds much harder to stomach is the ever-growing list of former Liverpool players (there were 22 at the last count) who are voicing their opinions about the current team. Worst of all for the Frenchman and his staff is the suggestion that the Liverpool of old were much more exciting to watch.

"Some of my players just can't understand how a former player can be so critical of his own club," Houllier said. "It always seems to be Liverpool under fire because, of course, so many ex-players are employed by television and radio. But just because Graeme Souness [now the Blackburn Rovers manager] says that we are a counterattacking team doesn't mean that it's true."

What is undeniable, however, is that Liverpool were annoyed to lose to Chelsea in the seasonal opener at Anfield last Sunday. "The first thing I would say is that they were very good," Houllier pointed out, "but I was disappointed we did not hold on for the draw. That's part of the immaturity of our squad. The players are young [the average age is just under 23] so they will need time to learn how to deal with different situations."

Perhaps this inexperience goes some way towards explaining why a side who produce lots of chances often fail to convert them into goals. "There is a slight problem," Houllier admits, "because we need to take the opportunities we get at this level. I'm hoping Harry [Kewell] will do that for us, but I also think that Emile [Heskey] is looking sharp."

Heskey had an excellent 75 minutes against Croatia for England on Wednesday, and Houllier will be hoping that the striker can maintain that level of form at Villa Park today. "Emile needs to have the psychological shackles off him," the Frenchman said. "He needs to find a certain level of confidence and comfort. When he has that, he is one of the best around."

The same could be said of Steven Gerrard, who returns to the Liverpool midfield today. "We missed Stevie against Chelsea," Houllier said. "He's shown by never losing a match when he's played for England that he is a big-game player. He is raring to go, and he will add a lot to the team."

Ever modest, Gerrard refuses to single himself out as the linchpin of the side. "It's not just down to me and individual players," he said. "It's down to the whole squad. It's not about me, or me doing it by myself or Michael [Owen] doing it by himself.

"We all have to take responsibility for the losses, and we've got to put that right against Villa. We win or lose together."

Such talk will be music to Houllier's ears, although the Frenchman is at pains to point out that winning or losing is not the be-all and end-all this afternoon. "There is a fine line between the two anyway," he said, "so I know not to get too excited when we win or too down if we lose. Let's see where we're at come next May and then draw conclusions."

The problem is that there are at least 22 people who are unlikely to wait that long.