Owen threat heaps the pressure on Houllier

Anfield manager travels to Chelsea tonight further undermined by claim that striker will leave unless Liverpool reach Champions' League
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The Independent Football

In a rather bizarre twist to a rather bizarre 48 hours at Liverpool Football Club, the manager yesterday gave the chairman a vote of confidence.

Gérard Houllier also reacted with irritation to a blunt suggestion from the agency representing Michael Owen that the striker may have to leave if Liverpool do not qualify for the Champions' League.

"It is not only Michael Owen, it is not only some agent wanting Champions' League football, it is the whole club and the whole community of fans," he said.

Houllier spoke out after the club's ill-tempered annual general meeting which ended with the chairman - and major shareholder - David Moores revealing that he is considering stepping down at the end of this season unless the team improves. It may be that Moores' stance is a covert way of trying to force Houllier into quitting, given the general level of discontent with the manager and Liverpool's unwillingness to sack him.

Yesterday, Houllier responded by saying: "I think the chairman is the best fan and best supporter the club has ever had. When the club was in difficulty he put in some money and probably saved the club at that time. He did say, 'If you think there is somebody better than me I will look at that'. Personally I think that would be a mistake because continuity must be the key word for us."

However, Houllier's attempt to achieve such calm - ahead of tonight's crucial Premiership game against third-placed Chelsea, who are an astonishing 16 points ahead of Liverpool - met another crisis. Jon Holmes, the chairman of SFX, which represents Owen, said: "Champions' League football is very important to Michael. A crucial five months await Liverpool. For them not to qualify for the Champions' League two years on the trot would have severe economic repercussions. Michael is now 24 and he is moving into his prime. He needs to be playing at the very highest level of club football."

Houllier, who had told shareholders on Monday that Owen was, in fact, close to signing a new contract, reacted by saying: "If we do not reach a Champions' League place, the absence of Michael Owen will have played a part. He has not been playing for three months. So when the agent says that we have to play in the Champions' League he should consider the fact that maybe if we had been more lucky with Michael and he had not been injured, we would be in the Champions' League spot." Ironically, Owen will probably again be missing tonight, as will Steven Gerrard.

It is believed that Houllier's irritation has been compounded because the agent Tony Stephens, who has represented Owen for years, is no longer so involved at SFX and has been away for several weeks. Furthermore, Owen himself has, so far, indicated he wants to stay. There is speculation he will leave the agency. Houllier was also forced, again, to defend his own record.

"I have changed a lot of things," he said. "We have managed in four years to finish fourth, third, second and, unfortunately, fifth last season and missed Champions' League football."

That was denied, of course, by Chelsea in the final League game of last season - a result which helped prompt Roman Abramovich's takeover. Expectations have since been raised several notches and fourth place would now be unacceptable for Chelsea.

But their form is patchy, with three wins in eight games, and they have fallen four points behind the leaders, Manchester United. One reason has been the disappointing goals return from Adrian Mutu - none in 12 games - and Hernan Crespo, who, free of illness, is set for a recall. The manager, Claudio Ranieri, will probably also restore John Terry at the expense of Marcel Desailly and is hoping to recall Carlo Cudicini, the goalkeeper.