Houllier: Passion will help Reds to title victory on emotional weekend
Anfield would be a maelstrom of passions today even if it was not arguably Liverpool's most important League fixture for more than two decades.
Home matches close to the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster are always emotional and this one comes just two days before a memorial service marking 25 years since the tragedy.
With the opening of the new inquest, the 96 dead are in the forefront of people's minds on Merseyside, with Everton also holding a service on Tuesday at Goodison Park.
The combination of events means, come kick-off today, the atmosphere at Anfield will be unlike anything any of the players have experienced. Liverpool have a relatively young side. Will they be able to cope, or will their usually sparkling football be suffocated by the emotion of it all?
Gérard Houllier has no doubts.
"It will lift the team even more," he said.
The Frenchman, now working as head of global football for Red Bull, for whom he has been in Brazil this week, was manager of Liverpool from 1998-2004, winning the Uefa Cup, FA Cup, Super Cup and League Cup twice. He also steered Liverpool to second in the Premier League in 2002 despite missing the middle of the season after a heart attack.
It was the only ztime since 1991 that Liverpool had finished higher than Manchester United.
Houllier had previously been a teaching student in Liverpool and, like his successor, Rafa Benitez, remains attached to the city and has followed his old club closely in the decade since he left.
Careful study of the last three months of the fixture list showing that most of Liverpool's rivals had to go to Anfield meant Houllier was one of the first to tip Liverpool for the title, saying back in February, "This year they can do it."
He is even more sure of that after last Sunday's victory at West Ham, a match he identified as one of the hardest in the run-in. "That is always a difficult place to play; you never win many games there and if you do it is normally by one goal," he told The Independent on Sunday.
"Now Liverpool have three games at home, which has become a fortress, and two winnable games away. It is not finished, it may come down to the wire, but nine wins on the trot, well…"
A 10th consecutive win today and Liverpool will be on the home straight. Given the occasion, the opposition, and what is at stake, this afternoon will be a test of nerve as much as ability. Houllier does not think Liverpool will be found wanting.
"There is a good combination of experienced players and young ones. Those young players are full of confidence and a bit fearless, that is what is good about young players."
They are also, he said, not intimidated by the club's illustrious past. Houllier often chuntered on about the legion of ex-players around Anfield, legends all, mostly working in the media, who seemed to judge contemporary teams by their own high standards and too often found their successors wanting.
That might be said to have been a problem with supporters at one point too, but you would now need to be aged 30-plus to have more than a vague recollection of the last title triumph in 1990. The same applies to the players. Even Steven Gerrard, the elder statesman, was only nine at the time.
"I don't think the players play with the idea they have to wipe out the past," said Houllier. "The past was glorious, it is probably why some of them signed for Liverpool. It is a club with a history of winning things and collecting silverware. But it is a different generation. I don't think they feel that pressure."
Gerrard made his debut 16 years ago under Houllier, who is delighted the captain is playing such a central – and sophisticated – role in Liverpool's charge.
"For him it will be a great reward. Imagine the record he would have, he will have won everything. He was clever against West Ham, he could not risk a yellow card [as he would be suspended against City]. He was very clever, just dropping and feeding other players all the time.
Gerrard's deep-lying role was, Houllier said, "a position we used him in sometimes. He was deeper than he was with Benitez – Benitez pushed him [forwards].
"He is like a playmaker in front of the defence instead of being the playmaker from behind the striker. He is like Andrea Pirlo. His passing has such quality, short or long. He can read the game. They are talking about a new contract, two years. They should sign him for three. He can keep on playing."
Houllier obviously hopes Liverpool win the title, but it is not just because of his attachment to the club, it is also because of the way Brendan Rodgers' team approach matches.
"What strikes me is the quality of their game," said the Frenchman. "They play well, they win in style, they play with outstanding quality. They play as a team and their attacking movement with the build-up from the back is probably one of the quickest in the country. In terms of quality of play they really deserve it."
Houllier expects an attractive match, but believes the key players will not be the likes of Luis Suarez and David Silva, but the men charged with stopping them. "It will be a good game between two attack-minded teams. But the defence will win it. [Victory will go to] the team that keeps the strikers at bay and does not concede a goal."
He notes that Liverpool had "a problem" defensively earlier this season but is pleased to add they have now "become strong" in that area.
In 2002 Houllier said his team were "ten games from greatness". In the end Arsenal, finishing with a run of victories, were too strong for them. A dozen years on, their successors also have greatness in their grasp, and they have just five games left.
Independent News Service