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Anfield's greatest import

With a fondness for the facts that tends to be derided in Manchester, Rafa Benitez is rarely described as sentimental. Yet there is a case for the Spaniard to make a rare emotional choice on Sunday. Rather than continuing to switch between Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, the alternative is to acknowledge a decade of dedicated displays and, for one final time, partner Jamie Carragher with Sami Hyypia.

The Finn is finished at Anfield. The meeting with Tottenham is his last possible game before Bayer Leverkusen, and a two-year deal in the Bundesliga, beckons. Only Steven Gerrard and Carragher have outlasted him and longevity has been accompanied by a record of distinguished service.

While, in his footballing dotage, he is only Benitez's fourth-choice central defender, he deserves to be ranked as Liverpool's greatest foreign player. Bruce Grobbelaar's and Jan Molby's advocates may dispute that, Dietmar Hamann can rival him and, in time, Fernando Torres may displace him but for now, Hyypia's case is compelling. So the great and the good at Anfield argue.

Benitez has deemed him a "perfect professional" and "a legend", Kenny Dalglish has called him a "magnificent servant" and Phil Thompson has suggested that, pound for pound, Hyypia is as good a signing as Dalglish himself. The Kop tended to confer their approval seconds before kick-off, when the choruses of his name tended to ring around Anfield in the days when the double 'y' was a fixture on the teamsheet. It was a chant as predictable as Hyypia himself, as reliably repetitive as the Finn proved in heading away thousands of balls in the Liverpool cause.

A picture of unflashy dependability, he was nevertheless technically good enough to volley in from the edge of the box against Juventus in the Champions League quarter-final in 2005. However, his name is indelibly associated with that of two other defenders: Stephane Henchoz and Carragher. Hyypia and Henchoz arrived together in 1999, when the former, recruited from Willem II, was much the lesser-known member of the partnership.

They dovetailed beautifully, Hyypia attacking the ball and Henchoz using his speed and reading of the game to tidy up behind him. Flanked by the similarly resilient duo of Carragher and Markus Babbel, they formed a redoubtable quartet in the treble-winning season of 2000-01.

Each topped 50 appearances in a campaign where the defence were exempt from the rotation policy. Their progress in each of the FA, Worthington and Uefa Cups was a triumph of stamina. Hyypia ended the campaign as de facto captain with Jamie Redknapp injured and Robbie Fowler often on the bench.

His subsequent decline in status to vice-captain and then senior professional could have suggested he fell out of favour. Certainly that appeared the case when Benitez signed Mauricio Pellegrino in 2005; instead Hyypia ended the season the undisputed first choice, a champion of Europe and half of a formidable twosome. Whereas Henchoz had effectively operated as a sweeper in his alliance with Hyypia, the Finn's relationship with Carragher was more a meeting of minds. It equated to a doubly defiant duo.

They have since been disrupted by first Agger and then Skrtel. If there were thoughts that Benitez would have prematurely pensioned Hyypia off in his first season in England, the opposite applied. Five years on, he was held in sufficient esteem to be offered a coaching role and an extended contract, before deciding Leverkusen provided a chance to prolong his playing career.

His time on Merseyside may culminate against Tottenham, but the swansong was supplied at Old Trafford in March; parachuted in when Alvaro Arbeloa was a late withdrawal, his commanding display illustrated his enduring strengths. The cliché that he never had any pace to lose isn't quite correct, but positional play and a sense of authority persist, along with enviable aerial ability.

Comparisons can be made with another departure, Aston Villa's retiring captain, Martin Laursen, a second Scandinavian who perfected the role of the archetypal British centre-half. Now that mantle may have passed to Fulham's Norwegian Brede Hangeland.

It is a sign of Hyypia's continued suitability for the England game that he has not been short of suitors in the Premier League. The most recent was Mick McCarthy, but the first was Kevin Keegan. Hyypia had a trial at Newcastle in 1995, and it is tempting to ponder an alternative history if that had resulted in a transfer to Tyneside.

Because while Liverpool ponder a 20th season without the title, Sunday nevertheless presents them with a chance to celebrate a man who has played a pivotal role in each of their cup successes over the last decade.

After Carragher, Hyypia is the outstanding defender the club has possessed in that time. They are rarely slow to remember their own at Anfield and Sunday, which once threatened to be the day they wrestled back the crown from Manchester United, promises to be a celebration of Hyypia. It is not the title they targeted, but he merits the tag of Anfield's greatest import.


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