Houllier: why we must hit the ground running

'We may have won the Treble, but there are two trophies we want more than any – and neither is yet in the cabinet'
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The Independent Football

Je ne regrette rien. It is just what you would expect last season's most garlanded Premiership manager to say when talking about the successes of the campaign. And yet, despite the pride Gérard Houllier clearly feels from the Uefa, FA and Worthington Cup Treble, the Frenchman's voice is still tinged with regret when he talks about the one trophy that he most covets.

There are those who believe that if Liverpool performed at their post-Christmas level before the festive season, they might have won the League title. It really was a season of two halves: the first won comfortably by Manchester United; the second dominated by Liverpool. Trouble was, by the time Liverpool had found their stride, United had all but secured the Premiership.

"That is my one regret," said Houllier after Liverpool's comfortable 3-0 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers in Friday's friendly. "Manchester United were on holiday by February because they'd already done enough to win the League again. It's difficult to know exactly how much harder we could have pushed them if we'd made a better start, but we might at least have finished second. The problem with the early part of last season was that we dropped too many points at places where we should have walked away with all three. There were matches when we were on top of the opposition but ended up drawing or even losing. We can't let that happen again. We need to be out of the starting blocks as quickly, if not quicker, than Man U."

Houllier added: "Hopefully, the players are more experienced and the team more established. Since last Christmas, I have seen definite improvements in the mental and physical toughness of the squad. I don't think it is any coincidence that we lost only twice after Boxing Day [against Leicester and Leeds United]. The more we've gone on, the more we've progressed. We've shown we can beat the best; now we have to deliver on a consistent basis."

Houllier's wish to compete against Europe's finest will be realised if Liverpool can overcome their probable opponents, FC Haka of Finland, in the third and final round of Champions' League qualifiers. The first leg is away on Wednesday, with the return at Anfield 13 days later.

The Liverpool players are still unsure what factor sun screen to take with them. Having disposed of FC Haka 5-0 on aggregate, Maccabi Haifa of Israel were due to be Liverpool's opposition until it transpired they had fielded the former Wimbledon player Walid Badir before he had completed a three-match ban. The Israelis have lodged an appeal against their ejection from the competition but, if the terse Uefa statement is anything to go by, their chances of success are very slim.

Should Liverpool end up playing FC Haka, we would be faced with the unusual situation of a Frenchman leading out an English club against a Finnish side who are managed by an Englishman. In truth, though, Houllier will not care much who his team play. All that he is concerned with is that Liverpool make it to the Champions' League proper. "We fought like dogs all of last season for a place in the competition," said Houllier, "and we only made absolutely sure of our top-three place on the last day away to Charlton. So you can imagine that we're not in a hurry to waste this opportunity."

He added: "This is a dream come true for Liverpool. Purely from an emotional point of view, this is a massive boost for the players and staff. Add to that the financial repercussions for the club and you have a rough idea how important a good run in this competition is. We've worked too hard to throw it all away now."

While most other Premiership managers have been busy recruiting new players, Houllier has been almost totally inactive. The Frenchman subscribes to the view that continuity brings continuity, which may explain why he has been so shy in the transfer market this summer, adding only John Arne Riise, for £4.5m from Monaco, to his squad. "If you look at the more successful teams in Europe," he said, "you will notice that they stick with the same bunch of players." Sir Alex Ferguson and Bayern Munich's Ottmar Hitzfeld have long been the main advocates of this "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" policy. This has been Ferguson's biggest shopping spree for some time, but then it is his final lap and the Scot is determined to walk away from Glasgow next May with the European Cup under his arm.

Houllier believes that the spine of his team – Sander Westerveld in goal; Sammi Hyypia and Stéphane Henchoz in central defence; Dietmar Hamann, Steven Gerrard (who made his first appearance of pre-season in Friday's second half against Wolves) or Gary McAllister in central midfield; and anyone of his four strikers, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Emile Heskey and Jari Litmanen up front – is still strong enough to withstand the demands of a multi-pronged challenge for the top honours this year. "We have a big squad at the moment," Houllier said, "but I know from experience that as soon as the season starts, you begin losing players very quickly. It only takes a couple of setbacks for you to be stretched, so I will naturally be looking to add to the squad.

"But I'm in no hurry. I'm pleased with my squad and I have confidence in my players. I certainly don't see why I should be pressured into buying just because other clubs are spending big. When I see that the likes of Jamie Redknapp, Veggard Heggem, Patrik Berger and Bernard Diomede are coming back to full fitness after injuries, it's almost as if I'd bought new players. I feel we're ready to make a push on several fronts."

Ironically, Liverpool's success means that defending their three Cups is the least of their priorities. "There are two trophies we want more than any," Houllier said, "and neither is yet in the cabinet."

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