Houllier divorce papers at the ready
Gerard Houllier reckons he and Aston Villa are committed to each other "for better or for worse". Given the creaking state of the institution of marriage, and nagging compatibility issues heading into Sunday's derby at Birmingham City, it was perhaps not the wisest choice of phrase.
Having tied the knot with Villa only three-and-a-half months ago, Houllier appears to retain the backing of Randy Lerner. The American owner has gone on record about appreciating the need to "grow the club" and the stability necessary to achieve that aim.
Defeat at St Andrew's, however, would have the Birmingham supporters gleefully advising the Frenchman that "you're getting sacked in the morning" - the same refrain he admitted "hurt" him when sections of the Villa crowd sang it after defeat by Sunderland.
It is the bitter rivals' third meeting in as many months. Ominously for Houllier, Birmingham had slightly the better of the barren draw at Villa Park and then turfed their neighbours out of the Carling Cup by making home advantage tell in last month's quarter-final.
After six straight wins in the fixture for Villa, a third derby without a victory would only compound the damage to his standing with their followers.
The idea of acting in haste may run counter to Lerner's instincts. Nevertheless, Villa's continued flirtation with relegation to the Championship - their league record under Houllier is three wins, eight defeats and five draws - could yet persuade the Cleveland Browns owner that, as his compatriots at Liverpool decided, a change needs to be made.
While Houllier is as honourable and personable an individual as you will meet in management, and a football man through and through, he is painfully aware that, in a results business such as the Premier League, his have to improve. And fast.
Otherwise the impression that he and Villa are simply not a good "fit" - as, say, Liverpool and Roy Hodgson or Leeds and Terry Venables transparently were not - will gain currency.
Houllier took over a side who, under Martin O'Neill's stewardship, had finished sixth three years in succession and reached the Carling Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals last spring. O'Neill's sudden departure, five days before the campaign kicked off, did them no favours, but there was every reason to believe that the newcomer's inheritance was a promising one.
Surprising, then, that in his eagerness to put his stamp on the club, he behaved as if had taken over a squad of slackers. Ordering double training sessions implied that he detected a lack of sharpness.
Then came his very public criticism of Stephen Ireland, a signing set up by the previous regime as part of James Milner's defection to Manchester City, for what he saw as an inadequate work-rate. Rightly or wrongly, such pronouncements tend to be poorly received within a club's dressing-room.
If the Holte End agreed with Houllier's verdict on Ireland, they have been less than enamoured of his first recruit, Robert Pires. The former Arsenal and France midfielder has failed to dispel the impression of a spent force, and suggested in a recent French radio interview that he feared Villa could well go down.
A faded Pires and indolent Ireland have contributed next to nothing to the cause so far. It has not helped, either, that a lengthy casualty list has plagued Houllier since his arrival, lending credence to O'Neill's repeated claims that the squad was not sufficiently big.
The plus side of that has been the emergence of talent from Villa's vaunted Academy. Houllier was never a great promoter of youth at Liverpool, perhaps because the requisite combination of ability and physicality was just not there.
At Villa, out of necessity, he has given extended opportunities for Barry Bannan (now a full cap with Scotland), the versatile Ciaran Clark, American full-back Eric Lichaj and Jonathan Hogg to follow Marc Albrighton into the team.
But their ebullience has often been offset by inexperience, such as when Villa let a 2-0 lead slip against Manchester United. There was no lack of camaraderie in the claret and blue ranks that day, though the absence, among others, of injured captain Stiliyan Petrov has probably contributed to some dispirited, disjointed displays, notably the 4-0 rout at Manchester City. If Villa go behind, too often there is no way back.
Petrov should be fit to lead Villa at St Andrew's. The hard-working Bulgarian, though, does not possess the quality Gareth Barry or Milner brought to midfield, which explains Houllier's attempt to prise Charlie Adam from Blackpool and Jean Makoun from Lyon.
Adam, intriguingly, could be playing for either side, or indeed neither, on Sunday. The Scottish playmaker - a throwback to a breed epitomised by Houllier's No. 2, Gary McAllister - is also a target for Birmingham manager Alex McLeish.
Two players who will definitely not figure in Villa's line-up are Emile Heskey and Ashley Young, both suspended after being red-carded in recent matches. Their indisposition places the attacking onus squarely on one of the few Brummies who will be involved, Gabby Agbonlahor. Fortunately for his manager, he has scored on his last three visits to Birmingham.
A hostile sea of blue will not daunt Houllier after his sojourn on Merseyside. Victory for Villa and his appointment might finally begin to resemble a match made in heaven. Lose again and Lerner may come to view it as a marriage of inconvenience.