Smicer draws strength from the talisman's return

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The Independent Football

Strange to imagine that footballers whose inflated egos are matched only by their salaries respond in the same way to the return of the guv'nor as those on the shop floor. But to listen to Vladimir Smicer, that's been the effect of the homecoming of Gérard Houllier.

"It's like any workplace, when your boss is back you give a little bit more," reflected the Liverpool midfielder after the 1-0 defeat of Bayer Leverkusen in Wednesday's first leg of the Champions' League quarter-final. "You think he's got his eye on you. It lifts the players."

Considering that Smicer and his team-mates had attained an imposing position in both the Champions' League and the Premiership during the Frenchman's absence, nobody could accuse the employees on the Anfield assembly line of slinking out the back for too many cigarette- and tea-breaks. Yet Houllier's return may just provide Liverpool with the necessary impetus to acquire the improbable double that he spoke of in the prelude to Wednesday's encounter.

Against Roma a fortnight ago his triumphant re-entry galvanised Liverpool into almost overpowering their visitors; on Wednesday, he appeared to exert an indefinable influence from the touchline as the Reds secured a slender advantage despite rarely being at their most convincing. "It's like having a good player who's been injured back in the team. You feel stronger," Smicer added approvingly of his manager's comeback. "We feel stronger now the gaffer is back."

"Ten games away from greatness," was Houllier's rallying cry in the prelude to the Leverkusen game. There will be sceptics who will contend that, equally, Liverpool were seven games away from nothing but absurd over-optimism. But when you have undergone the medical procedures that Houllier has this season, you are surely permitted a certain amount of hyperbole.

Now they are nine games away from that glorious conclusion. With their success in denying Leverkusen an away goal – indeed, three shots wide was the sum of the German team's attempts on goal; no wonder their coach, Klaus Toppmoller, gave a decent impression of a latter-day Dr Magnus Pike – Liverpool's progress to an all-Anglo semi-final with Manchester United is tantalisingly close.

One goal conceded in eight Premiership and European games is a record that must be exercising every one of Toppmoller's waking hours, with Sami Hyypia and Stéphane Henchoz the most obdurate guardsmen. For all that England's finest, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey, were anticipated to instil fear in the Leverkusen psyche, just as they had for England in Munich in September, it was a Finn and a Swiss who were primarily responsible for Liverpool heading for the Rhineland next Tuesday steeped in expectancy.

"A one-nil win is a really good position because we have looked strong defensively for a long time," said Smicer. "It's not easy to keep a clean sheet in the Premiership or Europe but our defensive record is excellent. Sami and Stéphane are a really strong duo. But everyone defends as a team, the midfield, even the front players."

Smicer continued: "There is unity in our squad. We have a fighting spirit and we play for each other. That's maybe the difference between us and other teams. It's not that we have greater footballers than the others, but we play like a team and not like stars."

Favoured by Houllier, who bought him from Lens, Smicer has emerged from periods of anonymity to figure prominently in recent successes and scored in both the Roma and Charlton victories when the manager was present. He blames Achilles injuries and the recovery required for his more moderate performances. "I need to be physically fit because the Premier League is tough and I am not the strongest man in the world," he explained, with a smile.

Even after three years at the club Smicer still bears the look of a man bedazzled by finding himself within a museum of rare and precious artefacts. Many of the collection are becoming antiquities, of course, and the principal items were won when he was a young boy in Czechoslovakia.

While some of those personnel who have arrived at Liverpool post-Hansen and Co have proved to be overawed by history and the resultant expectation, the Czech international has derived inspiration from the trophies on display.

The backcloth to where we speak is a mural of former Anfield legends. "That's our motivation," he gestures at the figures. "Because we would like to be as great as Liverpool were 20 years ago when they were the best in Europe.

"Now that is very difficult to achieve because it is so close between several teams. Sometimes you need luck."

That's when you need a talisman. They appear to have it in generous measures in Gérard Houllier.