Houllier's crusade knows no boundaries

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The Independent Online

His brow glistening with perspiration from the oppressive heat, Gerard Houllier had that slightly fiery-eyed look of a man who is on a crusade, and is aware that people are finally listening.

There was mention of Premiership and Champions' League ambitions, talk which at one time would have been considered idle and dangerous. Now it is greeted with knowing nods, even from the traditionally sceptical media. There were words like "unity" and "trust" being articulated, qualities which have been apparent in recent performances despite the recent much-publicised example of dissent in the Anfield camp involving one of Houllier's patrol-leaders, Robbie Fowler.

There was talk the day before from David Moores, Liverpool's chairman, comparing Houllier to Bill Shankly in the way he is respected by the players. "It's a great compliment, but I think it's over the top," the recipient protested after being fêted with "we who are not worthy" gestures by the Anfield faithful following Friday night's 3-2 Uefa Super Cup triumph over Champions' League victors Bayern Munich.

Later, when the man of the match made his entrance, the Liverpool manager commanded, like some would-be evangelist: "Let's have a round of applause for Michael." We duly did his bidding, and it brought a wry smile to the features of young Mr Owen, whose pace had been breathtaking in the first half.

Liverpool have been on a roll for so long most of us have forgotten when it started, though Houllier would submit that it goes back to February, when they captured the Worthington Cup. Exactly six months on, his squad again have that all-conquering look about them. Friday's game was a case in point. It was for the most part a compelling display of scintillating, flowing football, albeit that you sensed Bayern Munich had turned up for a testimonial only to discover that the Uefa Cup winners were there for a real game. But that said, no team will want to confront Liverpool in the immediate future. Pity Bolton Wanderers tomorrow night.

What can stop the men from Anfield? Most troubling for Houllier (though it is a back-handed compliment to the side he has assembled, too), is that close to half his team could conceivably be involved against Germany on Saturday and Albania the following Wednesday. Then Greece at home, and in all probability, two World Cup qualification play-offs. Attempting to indulge England's demands will require a careful strategy, bearing in mind that before the end of October, Liverpool will also be involved in six Champions' League fixtures and 10 Premier League games.

From the wider national perspective, Friday's contest was as much a proving ground for Steven Gerrard. Tomorrow night's game at Bolton will be no different. The midfielder, who not so long ago was just another young player of potential, has suddenly acquired the mantle of England's potential match-winner. A superman in all but cape and tights, whose fitness is surveyed by the nation's football followers with the same avaricious desire for information as royalists when the Queen Mother goes into hospital.

Against Bayern he was allowed 65 minutes, was his usual commanding self on the right of midfield and made a significant contribution to Liverpool's first goal. "He did OK," said Houllier, deliberately non-committal. "I'm sure Sven [Goran Eriksson] must have been relieved when I took him off. When you come back from injury you've got to be careful. I put his career ahead of the result."

The manager added: "Stevie had a valuable hour and that was enough. Don't forget he played only 20 minutes against Haka. I think he'll be all right. Obviously, it would be better if he had a couple more games under his belt. I think he needs to play [against Bolton] and if he can do, he will. You can keep his fitness up through aerobic work and cycling and so on, but it's mainly a matter of games."

Though Gerrard will undoubtedly benefit from another run-out, a trip to the Reebok Stadium is precisely what Owen, Emile Heskey, Jamie Carragher and Robbie Fowler don't need five days before England's game in Munich. It is unlikely that any will play the entire game. "I will take into account the heat and tiredness," said Houllier of the side he may select, before adding pointedly: "If you've got a squad you've got to use it."

Time will reveal how much the demands on his players will diminish Liverpool's success. But few can dispute that, notwithstanding the Fowler incident, Houllier has created a "family" spirit akin to that at Old Trafford. "The atmosphere in the camp is not only down to me," he insisted. "It's down to the staff and facilities, it's down to the way we manage and the way we live together. You need to have, of course, a few rules that guide your conduct, and after that you've got to work hard. But the main thing is that all your thoughts and energy must be turned to being successful."

He added: "It's unbelievable to win so many trophies, but there's more to win. Our main aim is to win the Premier League. I hope and believe we can do that this year, or if not the next, and obviously to do well in the Champions' League as well. We are developing our game, and when you win the players increase in their self-belief." That was why Friday's result and exhibition, much though some may deride the circumstances, can have done nothing but raise the expectation. You just have to believe.

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