Liverpool's progress depends on defence

Houllier's men must contain Bundesliga leaders as Panathinaikos face ordeal in European Cup quarter-finals
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The Independent Football

If footballers, as Gérard Houllier argues, are at their peak at 28, then it is just as well that the three members of his Liverpool side who are around that age are his goalkeeper and his two centre-halves. Defending a one-goal lead in Germany is not for the faint-hearted.

Should Sami Hyypia and Stéphane Henchoz stifle Bayer Leverkusen with the same ruthlessness they displayed at Anfield, then Jerzy Dudek may once more have a quiet evening, although it is hard to imagine the team that heads the Bundesliga will be quite so limited going forward as they were in the first leg of this European Cup quarter-final.

The BayArena, all futuristic modernism, will mark Houllier's first trip with Liverpool since he led them to Newcastle at the end of September, where they smothered one of the most attacking sides in the country in their own stadium. A similar display tonight would see them through to the semi-finals, where they are likely to meet Manchester United in an atmosphere that would border on the hysterical.

"We have always responded to any kind of obstacle in front of us, but 1-0 is not a dangerous scoreline for us because it means they will probably have to score twice to win," Houllier said yesterday. "After the first leg, you put yourself in one of three scenarios; either you have a great chance to qualify, your fate is in the balance or you ruin your chances, like Deportivo have done." Houllier places Liverpool firmly in the second category.

However, in the aftermath of their defeat at Anfield, Leverkusen's coach, Klaus Toppmöller, seemed relatively buoyant and their record in the BayArena is formidable enough to suggest that a 1-0 deficit is hardly an insurmountable obstacle.

Thirteen of Leverkusen's last 15 home matches have been won with 42 goals scored and a mere eight conceded. The only Champions' League game lost in front of their own supporters was against Lyons when their qualification for the second group phase had already been assured. They have, incidentally, overcome worse deficits, most notably in overturning Espanyol's three-goal lead to take the Uefa Cup in 1988, when the final was still a two-legged affair.

Nevertheless, despite leading the Bundesliga by four points, Leverkusen appear to be not entirely focused on the task in hand. The fact that they are so near to a title that until now has always escaped them has led to one or two jitters in this part of the Rhineland and a season which could end with a treble to match Manchester United's has inevitably sowed weariness around the squad.

They returned to Germany from Merseyside at 4.30 on Thursday morning and after a laboured 2-0 victory over local their rivals Cologne on Saturday, their midfielder Michael Ballack described their performance as "slow and tired". In complete contrast, Houllier's team, without a weekend game, are at full strength and fully rested.

Significantly, none of the strikers hoping to penetrate Liverpool's defences this evening impressed. Thomas Brdaric, who missed the first leg with injury, looked less than match-fit while Dimitar Berbatov was as ineffectual as he had been at Anfield. Against a side bottom of the Bundesliga, Leverkusen relied on a dubious penalty converted by their keeper and a second from their Brazilian centre-half, Lucio.

Nevertheless, Houllier prejudged nothing. "Humility is a good ingredient for a club. . . We seem to win without getting complacent and self-assured. I have never spotted an arrogant line about my team and if I did I would get rid of that player immediately; arrogance is a cancer within a team. Complacency kills clubs.

"I like to hear the players laugh, I like the banter; we are looking to improve team bonding. People talk to me about pressure and I say: 'What pressure? Teams at the bottom of the table have pressure but not us'. We have always played well in intense matches."

Houllier admits that when planning for this season he did not bank for a European Cup quarter-final, pointing out that while Chelsea and Leeds reached the knock-out stages of the Champions' League, they both failed to qualify for the following season's competition. To achieve both targets, as Liverpool surely will, is a mark of a club ahead of schedule, although winning club football's greatest trophy is decidedly part of Houllier's four-year plan.

"To be considered a truly great manager you would have to have won the European Cup," he said. "But, if you ask the players, they would say they prefer the FA Cup, which is funny. Perhaps it's because they are English." Or Polish, or Finnish, or Swiss.

Bayer Leverkusen (probable, 4-4-2): Butt, Sebescen, Nowotny, Lucio, Zivkovic; Schneider, Ballack, Basturk, Ze Roberto; Neuville, Brdaric or Kirsten.

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