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Saturday, Feb. 28, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Time running out for Houllier's 'plan' at Anfield


LONDON -- It seems a matter of when rather than if Gerard Houllier leaves Liverpool, perhaps only an unlucky 13 Premiership games to go before the manager has gone.

Christopher Davies

After six years in sole charge and almost £130 million spent on new recruits, Houllier is like a bird flying into the wind, doing all he can to go forward but getting nowhere on his expensive ride.

The 1-0 F.A. Cup fifth-round defeat by Portsmouth last Sunday saw Houllier in Groundhog Day mode, but the Liverpool supporters have heard the same old excuses over and over again and they are wearing thin.

The phone-ins have seen the lines of Liverpool's radio stations on meltdown -- again -- since the loss at Portsmouth and an unwritten law of football is that if the fans turn against you, it is almost impossible to bring them back on your side.

The patched-up Portsmouth side (they had 14 players unavailable) cost £3 million -- loose change by Anfield standards -- with five free transfers and three loan signings.

The 14 who represented Liverpool, by contrast, cost £45 million and it was the third time this season Liverpool had failed to beat the Premiership new boys.

When Houllier was appointed manager after a spell in joint-charge with Roy Evans the Frenchman put in place a five-year plan, the time in which he wanted to make Liverpool realistic title challengers.

The five years was up last November but Houllier, trying to buy time better than he has bought some players, insisted the first year of his reign was not really "my" team.

It is now and the main accusations are that Houllier inherited the best players (Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard) from the youth system but has wasted millions on overseas investments with Igor Biscan, El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao leading the way in the "rarely has so much been paid for so little" brigade.

As you would expect, Houllier truly believes he can turn around a season which is dying on its feet. All the signs, however, are that few believe in Houllier.

Not the supporters, who have been filling the phone-in airwaves with their vitriol for months and lately have begun to vent their feelings from the Kop.

Not the players either, if their display in the humiliating defeat by Portsmouth was anything to go by.

It is a strong football man who can lose both the supporters and the dressing room and still remain in charge, even if the Liverpool board for the moment has not pressed the trigger, no doubt aware that finding a replacement in February is virtually impossible.

What appears certain in the increasingly distressing story of Liverpool Football Club is that Houllier has 13 league games to save his job.

Forget the UEFA Cup win on Thursday over Levski Sofia -- that match and that tournament are mere distractions in the greater scheme, which dictates if Liverpool does not gain the fourth Champions League spot in the Premiership come May, then Houllier will be history.

At present the team lies sixth, two points behind Charlton and three behind Newcastle with a game in hand on both.

On the plus side, we should not forget the impressive work Houllier has done in nurturing Anfield's youth system, building their academy and ridding the club of off-field indiscipline.

But there are three reasons in particular why Houllier could not survive missing out on the Champions League.

The first is the obvious loss of £20 million the competition conveys and which would help fund the rebuilding program so clearly essential if Liverpool is to compete with the Premier League's 'Big Three' of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

The other two reasons are Owen and Gerrard -- Liverpool's prized assets, neither of whom have concealed their disappointment at missing out on matching their talents against the cream of Europe in the latter stages of the Champions League.

Houllier would not easily be forgiven for the loss of Owen, whose contract has one more full season to run.

If Owen does not sign a new deal -- he could walk away on a Bosman free in 2005 and negotiate a contract elsewhere where the zero's would require an industrial strength calculator -- Gerrard, already courted by Chelsea, could follow suit.

It is surely inconceivable that the Liverpool board would back Houllier for a rebuilding program under such circumstances, when his buying to date is at the root of Liverpool's downfall.

Houllier's constant meddling with systems and personnel, admittedly many of them caused by a constant stream of injuries, has not helped matters.

Against Portsmouth he asked his team to play the first half in a 4-2-3-1 formation favored by Real Madrid, yet Liverpool looked real beginners.

Liverpool's strength in its halcyon days was its simplicity, the fact that it played the game which suited it and let the opposition worry about how they were going to cope.

These days Liverpool no longer possesses the pass masters of old. Too often they have concentrated on defending deep and relying on the pace of Owen on the break.

The system worked for a while, even winning three trophies in a season three years ago -- the League Cup, F.A. Cup and UEFA Cup -- and following those up with the Super Cup and the Charity Shield.

But with Owen missing for two months this season through injury and so little craft in its game plan -- so far the purchase of Harry Kewell has solved little -- opponents wised up to the Houllier way and found that if their talismanic England striker can be contained, there is precious little penetration from other areas.

These days Liverpool is too cautious, too predictable and too much like watching grass grow compared to the imperious red machine of yesteryear.

The criticism has been mounting on Houllier for the past 18 months, together with the continued speculation that Celtic's Martin O'Neill is poised to take over.

How much more can the intelligent, charming Frenchman take?

Most reckon it is 13 matches and counting.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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