Giving his first press conference since returning to work after heart surgery, Gérard Houllier urged his players to go that extra mile for greatness on the eve of the first leg of Liverpool FC's UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Anfield. The Liverpool manager believes that if his team can sustain their present form for ten more games they can add an FA Premiership and UEFA Champions League double to their quadruple success of last year.
"We are ten games away from achieving greatness, so all we have to do is play our game and express ourselves on the pitch," Houllier said. "We are best when we give it our best shot and what I like about us is our consistency. We have won a lot of trophies and still my players have a desire to win the next game.
"The players are my heroes. When you take into account what they have been through - losing their manager and losing Markus Babbel through a serious illness - their performances have been outstanding. The fact we are second in the league and in the quarter-finals of the Champions League is witness to their character and talent. They have kept the attitude and commitment and I'm a great believer that when the attitude is right you get results and that true heroism is rewarded."
Barring their way to the European half of that double in their 200th European tie is currently the best team in Germany - Bayer 04 Leverkusen. For some reason, the chances of the 1. Bundesliga leaders enjoying success in this competition have been almost completely discounted, partly as a result, perhaps, of their emphatic 4-1 defeat against Arsenal FC in the second group stage of the competition. Yet those familiar with the characteristics of Klaus Topmöller's side will tell anyone who cares to listen that Leverkusen have a habit of playing an exceptionally poor game once in a while and that the defeat at Highbury was just such an occasion.
Excellent footballing side
For the most part they are an excellent footballing side, as RC Deportivo La Coruña will verify, having lost 3-0 to them away, as well as in that match in La Coruña a fortnight ago when some observers put Leverkusen's victory down to the fact that the Spanish side fielded an under-strength side. FC Bayern München's Owen Hargreaves does not subscribe to that view. "Leverkusen are top of the Bundesliga for a very good reason," said the England midfield player. "Some people are surprised they've come this far in the Champions League, but I'm not. They're having a great season and are easily capable of beating Liverpool over two legs."
That said, the knockout format does seem to suit the English side, who last year won three such competitions as well as the UEFA Super Cup against Bayern. While they are defensively well equipped for such football the onus on them tonight will be to make the running against a Leverkusen defence who are bound to miss the suspended Jens Nowotny.
History favours Liverpool
History would also seem to be on Liverpool's side: they have never lost to a German team at Anfield and in 14 matches against opposition from that country at home have conceded just three goals - the last 25 years ago - while scoring 39. The flip side to that coin is that they have only ever won once against 1. Bundesliga opposition on German soil.
Important first leg
Houllier insists he pays little heed to statistics, but points out that in his time as Liverpool manager he has travelled twice to Germany, or Dortmund to be exact, drawing once and winning once - the latter being last season's UEFA Cup final against Deportivo Alavés. "When we win tomorrow and draw over there it will be a good travel again," he said. "The most important leg in a two-legged competition is always the first one, but I won't tell you why - my players know why."
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