Champions League: Houllier tips United to reach final

Gerard Houllier is convinced Manchester United can overcome Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-finals of the Champions League.

Gerard Houllier is convinced Manchester United can overcome Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-finals of the Champions League.

First of all, of course, Alex Ferguson’s side have to complete the job at Old Trafford tonight against Deportivo La Coruna.

Houllier does not expect United to give up the 2-0 advantage. He also feels they have enough about them to reach the final.

His assessment regarding their chances against Leverkusen was brief and to the point. ‘‘They will definitely win,’’ he said in the aftermath of Liverpool’s extraordinary defeat last night.

Klaus Toppmoller, coach of the German league leaders, cut short his celebrations so he could fly to Manchester today and see their next opponents at first hand.

A superb goal from Lucio six minutes from time secured Leverkusen’s passage into the last four after a roller-coaster second leg.

Michael Ballack opened the scoring only for Abel Xavier, back after a hamstring strain, to pull Liverpool level.

Michael Owen squandered a series of good chances and Leverkusen went ahead on aggregate through Ballack’s second goal of the game and Dimitar Berbatov’s incisive finish.

Jari Litmanen appeared to have thrown Liverpool a lifeline only for Lucio to have the last word.

It was a bitter blow for Houllier, making his first trip abroad with the squad after major heart surgery last October.

But he leapt to the defence of Owen, who could have put the game out of Leverkusen’s reach.

’’On a good day Michael could have had a hat-trick,’’ he said. ‘‘Our only regret is that we missed chances.

’’We had the quality to be 3-1 ahead in the second half but there is nothing I can reproach my players for.

’’Our European campaign may be over but I’m proud of my squad. We have played 17 games in Europe and lost twice to Barcelona and Leverkusen. Both these teams are in the semi-finals of the Champions League.’’

Liverpool have developed a mean streak this season but the barriers came down when least expected.

Houllier said: ‘‘Defending is a team thing and maybe we didn’t protect the back four as much as we could.

’’Conceding a goal like we did six minutes from the end was hard, probably my players were tired.

’’The good thing from my point of view is that this team learns fast and that is a good sign for the future.’’

Houllier was forced to make a change in the 41st minute, bringing on Litmanen for Emile Heskey, who suffered a hamstring strain.

The French manager was quick to pay tribute to the England striker. ‘‘I have to pay homage to Emile as he came back from his grandmother’s funeral in Antigua on Sunday. He was tired but he wanted to play.’’

Houllier also decided to take off Dietmar Hamann in the 61st minute and replace him with Vladimir Smicer.

Houllier said: ‘‘Didi can produce a lot more. This was not one of his best days and I wanted more penetration on the right.’’

Leverkusen coach Toppmoller appeared bewildered after seeing his team turn the match on its head. ‘‘It is difficult to grasp what we have achieved,’’ he said. ‘‘It is almost beyond belief.

’’We showed enormous spirit in this game and were prepared to take risks when we had to.

’’To come back after Litmanen’s goal is testimony to what we are all about and it was a sensational goal from Lucio. We are all overjoyed.’’

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