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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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Cisse's date with destiny

If Djibril Cisse manages to fire Auxerre into the UEFA Cup quarter-final on Thursday night, the irony will not be lost on Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier.

With Houllier's tenure as Anfield chief apparently to be winding towards a less-than-glorious climax after a season of consistently woeful displays, many have pointed the finger of blame at his summer signings. Yet, while the likes of Bruno Cheyrou, El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao have been a major disappointment, Liverpool's dip in form appears to run much deeper than that.

Michael Owen looks a shadow of his former self, while Steven Gerrard, Stephane Henchoz and Emile Heskey, three pillars of the side that lifted three trophies a couple of seasons back, have not exerted the same sort of influence this time around.

So as Auxerre and their remarkable coach Guy Roux try to play down their chances of reversing the 1-0 score line from the first leg when they travel to Anfield this week, the door to the quarter-finals is clearly ajar for them.

Especially when you consider their star turn, the brilliant Cisse, is returning from suspension with a hunger to prove to Liverpool that they might not be in their current predicament if he had been a member of their current squad.

It's no secret the Reds wanted to sign Cisse last summer and as Roux confirms, he rarely conducts a conversation with his old friend Houllier without a mention of this prodigious talent.

'I speak with Gerard every week and he is always trying to get onto the subject of Djibril,' he smiles. 'I know he will leave Auxerre at some point, but hopefully not too soon.

'When the time comes, I'll make sure he goes to a club that will best suit his game and England would be good for him. He has the pace to flourish in a league where teams tend to defend without sweepers.

'But I don't know what this fuss over Cisse is all about. He's still learning the game and all this showbiz reporting about him being a genius is madness. I don't want him to become the next Anelka so let's be sensible.'

Cisse's decision to spend another season under Roux's guidance rather than cash in on his celebrity suggests he has more about him than that footballing nomad who goes by the name of Nicolas Anelka.

Rather than throwing himself into the big time too soon, he has honed his talents in the French league and is now proving himself at international level.

After edging out Anelka for a place in France's World Cup squad, he scored in their Euro 2004 win over Cyprus last September and at the age of 22, is now maturing in the fashion his suitors expected he might.

Cisse remains convinced he has made the right move in delaying what seems to be an inevitable switch to England. 'I still had things to learn last summer and that's why it was not a good moment for me to leave Auxerre,' he states.

'I was missing too many chances last season, but it was still a great year for me.

'I didn't think I would be in the first team at the start of last season and by the end, I was in the World Cup squad. I know there are big clubs interested in me and maybe I would like to play in England one day. At least I have given myself the best chance to succeed when I get there.'

A member of France's Under-18 European Championship winning side in 2000, Cisse was born in Nimes and played for his hometown club before moving to learn his trade under the legendary Guy Roux at Auxerre in 1996.

Djibril Cisse: Ready for pressure
Djibril Cisse: Ready for pressure
He has developed from a leggy raw talent into a quality performer destined for stardom and if he does hammer another nail in Houllier's Anfield coffin on Thursday night, it may be a night he reflects on as one of the most significant of his career.

Houllier's friendship with Roux means he effectively has a first option on Cisse, so should Liverpool have a new manager in charge for the start of next season, the odds are the Auxerre wonder kid would end up at Arsenal or even Manchester United, both of whom have been linked with him in the last year.

While some would argue he would be better off joining either of those clubs, he speaks fondly of Liverpool.

'I have said that it was a dream for me to play for Liverpool or Manchester United when I was a kid growing up in Nimes and that is true,' adds the striker whose father played international football for the Ivory Coast. 'The trouble is, whenever I say something like that now, people say that is proof I want to join those clubs as quickly as possible.

'Maybe Liverpool would be nice for me. I have a slight preference for them, but that is not to say I want to join next week. What I have learned in the last few months is I have to be very careful about what I say now. I have agents following me around everywhere and life is not the same any more.'

This game has a habit of working in curious ways and if Djibril Cisse manages to halt the proposed Battle of Britain between Liverpool and Celtic in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, he may just change the course of his own career in the process.

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