’Pool aim to end season on a high, says Houllier

WHEN Gerard Houllier starts talking in terms of “winning the war” you sense Liverpool are steeling themselves for a charge to glory in the final months of a controversial season.

The Anfield chief, who has Michael Owen and Dietmar Hamann back in his starting line-up for the FA Cup fourth round replay with Crystal Palace tonight, is predicting his much maligned outfit will rise above the catalogue of troubles and problems that have dogged their season.

The latest body blow is a three-match ban for Steven Gerrard that starts with the Palace game, and which Houllier condemned in scathing terms.

"I'm disappointing with the Gerrard verdict. The tackle didn't look good but it wasn't malicious. Sometimes you can get away with things, sometimes you can't, depending on what club you're with," he said.

But Houllier sees the Gerrard ban as just another problem for the Reds to overcome. The season has been beset with the loss of form of Owen, Emile Heskey, Jerzy Dudek, Sami Hyypia and John Arne Riise. There's been the continued illness of Markus Babbel, the Owen betting saga, Chris Kirkland's dreadful injury, the acrimonious Champions League exit and the 12-match Premiership run without a win.

Gerrard's ban is just another setback and Houllier believes the Reds' best form is returning, and Palace could well find themselves facing a team on song again.

"A lot of my players looked back to their best at West Ham on Sunday," warned Houllier. "The desire and determination to finish the season well and to win is something I see as reassuring for the future.

"It's true we had to rise above a lot of things we didn't predict, but that's part of the game. It will strengthen the players for the future, it's good sometimes when you go through a difficult period, you can see who you can win the war with.

"It's been a season of overcoming situations we were not expecting. It's been a good test of our nerves and our character and we have shown in games the mental stamina and temperament to overcome problems."

With Vladimir Smicer and now Gerrard suspended, Houllier sees the return of Owen rested at West Ham and Hamann as crucial.

"Michael Owen is starting, definitely, he knows that. It was just a question of keeping him fresh. Didi played 10 minutes against West Ham and that was a message to him. For the last three months of the competitions, be they cup or league, you want to have your best players fit and ready to play. So it's good to have people back."

Houllier will also wait to see who Sven-Goran Eriksson selects on Saturday for next week's friendly against Australia at Upton Park, confident that his overworked players will not be asked to do too much on international duty.

"Between January 29 and March 2 our players will have to play 10 games," he said. "They have needed a rest, which is why Owen was rested. We will now have to see what the national team selection is. He (Eriksson) is aware of the situation, that's all I can say."

Trevor Francis will hand quiet Frenchman Cedric Berthelin the biggest test of his career at Anfield. The Eagles manager has axed first-choice goalkeeper Alex Kolinko for the FA Cup fourth-round replay after the Latvian handed in his notice last week, refusing to play in the defeat at Leicester on Saturday.

Berthelin now faces the daunting prospect of stopping Owen and co, despite having spent most of his career on the substitutes' bench at Lens before a loan move to Luton.

Palace earned a 0-0 draw in the original tie at Selhurst Park, but will be without captain Curtis Fleming for the replay with a knee injury. Dougie Freedman (hernia) and Steve Thomson (broken leg) are back in contention. Kolinko's absence means 17-year-old Lance Cronin is promoted to the bench.

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