Houllier looks to Owen in the battle of wills with United

Worthington Cup final: Liverpool manager aims for sixth successive defeat of bitter rivals motivated by hunger of captain in final phase of career

By Tim Rich
Saturday 01 March 2003 01:00
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For someone who has a World Cup winners medal, awarded for his work as France's technical director in the 1998 campaign, it is surprising how much this Worthington Cup final matters to Gérard Houllier.

For the first time since his arrival at Anfield in the summer of the great French triumph, the Liverpool manager cannot point to measured upward progress. It says something for his achievements that tomorrow's Worthington Cup final will be Liverpool's fifth appearance at the Millennium Stadium but only Manchester United's second.

However, the difference between the two clubs can be found in Roy Keane's comment that, if the Worthington Cup were all Manchester United won, the season would be counted a failure. Liverpool, seventh in the Premiership, may yet need it to re-qualify for European football.

Despite having led them to five successive victories over the club's bitterest rival, Houllier concedes there is a gulf between Old Trafford and Anfield. "Even if we win, we know we are not at Manchester United's level in terms of the quality of their players. Look at how many games they played in the Champions' League; I still think we have some way to catch up.

"I consider United to be on the top, ahead of Arsenal in European standards. Regarding the league, Arsenal have been more consistent but there is a step between the Premiership and the Champions' League."

Even after his life-threatening heart illness, Houllier is an obsessive. He can, for instance, reel off the statistic that Liverpool have kept 23 clean sheets in the 40 European games under his charge and was up until two o'clock on Friday morning watching a video of the 23rd, a 2-0 Uefa Cup victory over Auxerre in which Michael Owen again proved his worth, with the first, immaculately taken goal.

The England striker is one of the few clear advantages Liverpool have in Cardiff. Although his manager thinks he will not match the ruthlessness of Alan Shearer's finishing until later in his career, Owen is unquestionably a big-game player.

"He has a strong personality and he has improved a lot. He has the right attitude and from that everything follows. I knew at some stage we would have to work on his volleying and his left foot. If you see the way he heads a ball or holds a ball up now, it's different. The two goals he scored in the FA Cup final against Arsenal, one was a volley, the other was a left-foot shot.

"He is a very strong-willed person which is a very good ingredient to get to the top. Early in 2001 Clinton Morrison was having a go at him [after Crystal Palace had beaten Liverpool in the first leg of their Worthington Cup semi-final]. That was in February and in December he won the Palme d'Or and in that period he scored 40 goals, some very important for us and for England."

Houllier is frank in his belief that it is the Uefa Cup which matters more, "although my players prefer the domestic cups. I think the recognition you get in this new world of football is different when you win in Europe. The Uefa Cup in 2001 got Liverpool back into the bigger picture because we had beaten Olympiakos, Roma, Porto and Barcelona to get there. I don't feel any kind of pressure on this game. It's not a lifeline for me."

However, the final 10 Premiership matches most assuredly are. For the most basic of financial reasons, Liverpool have to re-qualify for the Champions' League. It is a priority it simply never was under Bill Shankly, who, Houllier might like to note, failed to take Liverpool into the top four in six of his seasons at Anfield.

The dangers, however, are stark. When Houllier was winning his trio of trophies in 2001, Leeds were storming their way to the semi-finals of the European Cup, but a failure to make it back triggered the collapse of the very fabric of the club. It is not a comparison Houllier welcomes or thinks fair.

"How can you compare us to Leeds? We have won five trophies, what have they won? In any walk of life, in business, you have difficult periods. Failure is part of success. It happened to Alex Ferguson. What happened against Crystal Palace sometimes happens in life, but we are in the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup, we are in contention to be in the top four of the Premiership – it is hard but we will make it – and we are in the Worthington Cup final.

"Look at our team that played Auxerre: there is not a player under 30. If they tell me to sell Michael Owen or Steven Gerrard, then we have a problem but if I can keep my best players, it's not a problem; just give them time. I was reading the match programme at Birmingham and it said Liverpool are a club in crisis – what kind of crisis is this! I know we are not doing well in the league, I know we underperform at times but we are not on the verge of collapsing, I can assure you of that."

Victory tomorrow would reinforce Houllier's argument that Liverpool's loss of form is a mere blip. After their win over Auxerre, El Hadji Diouf's mother called to tell her son that people were literally dancing in the streets of Dakar. Should Manchester United be beaten again, it will be worth a little jig by the Pier Head.

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