Houllier fighting losing battle at Villa
Gerard Houllier sensed he was going to come under fire during the festive period. The Aston Villa manager rummaged around in his mental dictionary of military metaphors and said he needed his players to go to war with him.
Villa Park has resounded to the crump of explosions ever since. Houllier's side are within one point of the relegation zone, and "definitely" in a battle for survival.
Few think Villa are genuine relegation fodder but even those who have seen hard service like Houllier would feel a trifle pessimistic, with Villa set to confront such heavy battalions as Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United over the next six games, not to mention a derby against Birmingham at St Andrews.
"We knew it would be a difficult Christmas because we had a difficult run of games," Houllier said.
For a club who have finished sixth for the last three seasons it is a serious shock to the system. Whether it is a predicament of Houllier's making or a result of Martin O'Neill's departure five days before the start of the season depends on your point of view.
O'Neill has his share of blood on his hands, but any excuses Houllier has are negated by the fact that he has been in charge for 14 Premier League games, and won just three of them, losing seven.
Houllier admits that his squad's confidence is something they "need to address", but the Frenchman has not helped the situation with some baffling comments about the club's ambition.
At the outset he compartmentalised Villa as a team who belong mid-table. "Let's be objective and honest," he said on taking over in September. "It's a club that has belonged between seventh and 12th place."
If that angered fans, he had them jibbering with rage after his love-in at Liverpool. He put his foot in it before the match. Asked whether he was confident of winning, Houllier looked dubious. "Difficult to feel that way," he said. After the 3-0 defeat, he accused his players of not possessing the necessary "moral resources".
Houllier wants players who will smear on the war paint. Stephen Ireland has been told that Houllier does not see him as the warrior type. John Carew does not feel like joining his manager in going over the top. After being snowed in at home in Norway, the striker told his manager he was unfit for duty against Manchester City on Tuesday. Carew's commitment has always been dubious.
Houllier's falling out with Richard Dunne is even more serious. The Dubliner would have been the ideal player for the squad to rally around, but Houllier's treatment of him following an argument with Gary McAllister -- playing him in the reserves then dropping him from the squad entirely -- has bruised the defender's ego and made him a potentially divisive figure in the dressing-room.
Houllier has attempted to dismiss stories of player disaffection as confections of media imagination. He explained on Tuesday that Ireland's exclusion was the result of a knee injury, not a personality clash, yet it is understood that the midfielder was fit and could have played.
That Houllier's tactics are failing is less difficult to argue with. He has the same defenders to call on as O'Neill, under whom they finished sixth last season. Under Houllier they have kept two clean sheets, and along with Wigan, have the worst goal difference in the league. Houllier admits that they are "guilty of being too naive".
There are threads of hope to hang on to. France U-19 captain Gueida Fofana is inbound, and Ashley Young should be fit on Saturday to face Chelsea, the only team below Villa in the league's form table. But Villa have not won at Stamford Bridge since 2002, so they'd better prepare for another bombardment. (© Daily Telegraph, London)