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Houllier hails Villa's hunger for the battle

HAVING been told by chairman Randy Lerner to build bridges with his squad, Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier believes his team's battling at the Bridge has underlined their togetherness.

Lerner ran through the directors' box to embrace chief executive Paul Faulkner after Ciaran Clark's injury-time equaliser and Houllier was full of praise for his players afterwards.

"It was a game where we got our reward in the end. The fact that we managed to equalise was because we really wanted to win this game," said the Frenchman. "We didn't bottle out."

Ireland international Richard Dunne was recalled to the team by Houllier for the first time since the defeat to Liverpool on December 6 and responded with a solid performance.

Houllier has been in a battle to impose his methods upon the team and there was no sign of Stephen Ireland in the squad again yesterday.


"I would have been very disappointed if we hadn't got anything from this game, particularly for the players because they did enough to get at least a draw," added Houllier.

"But at 2-2 and then 3-2 I have to praise the players for their character and reaction. I think this can be a turning point."

The former Liverpool manager also insisted he had no regrets at having taken the post and that the gutsy display at Chelsea confirmed that he has the backing of the players.

"I have no regrets about coming here," he said. "It's tough but I enjoy it. I've read so many things that have really stunned me and have nothing to do with the truth. Sometimes a player who is not playing calls his agent who calls the press. You can't have a game like that and get a result like that without togetherness."

The referee, Lee Mason, booked seven Villa players in the game -- once they passed the threshold of six they earned an automatic £25,000 fine from the English FA -- but it was Chelsea's players who looked the most irate as they left the pitch.

Strong words were exchanged between John Terry and Didier Drogba, although manager Carlo Ancelotti said there was no problem between the pair. The Italian did concede, however, that his team had to beat Manchester United in the rearranged game at Stamford Bridge, due to be played on March 1, if they are to retain their Premier League title.

That is dependent on both teams avoiding FA Cup fifth-round replays; if not, that crucial game will have to be played even later in the season but the Chelsea manager was adamant that all is not lost, despite the fact that his side has now won just once in eight Premier League games and, of considerable concern, have 10 points fewer than they had after the same number of games last season.

"I think everything is open. We have to beat them here and I think we can say again something about the title," Ancelotti said. "The title race is not over because we are improving."

Ancelotti, though, admitted that Chelsea are defensively weak, a situation not helped by the extended absence of Alex and, against Villa, the suspension of Branislav Ivanovic.

That forced the Italian to give a first Premier League start to 19-year-old Dutchman Jeffrey Bruma, who looked off the pace at times, though Ancelotti was quick to praise the youngster.

"Defensively we lost something, obviously, but I want to say that Bruma played very well. But without Alex and Ivanovic we lose some energy on the high balls. We conceded the second goal for this reason."

Ancelotti confirmed he will move in the transfer window but will wait this week for the return of Alex, from Brazil, to see how his recovery from knee surgery is progressing before deciding whether to move for a defender.

At the end Terry and Drogba appeared to be arguing, but Ancelotti dismissed any suggestions of discord, saying that in the dressing-room "everything was okay".

But the manager did admit that his key strikers, Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, were having "difficulty" in finding their form, adding: "They have difficulty in this moment but Drogba scored today; for a striker to score is very important and I think he is moving on from this difficult moment. Anelka is the same."

Irish Independent