Football: Hyypia's colossal task at Anfield

Premiership: Liverpool's new centre-half is determined to show his stature against the champions today
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The Independent Online
IT IS nearly 40 years ago now since Bill Shankly famously invited journalists to walk round Ron Yeats and wonder at the physique of the man he called "The Colossus". He was an exception; Liverpool do not tend to have big centre-halves.

Before Yeats you had to go back to the 1930s and "Tiny" Bradshaw to find a similar giant, and after Yeats the model was smaller and sleeker centre- backs who made up for their lack of bulk by speed of thought, anticipation and superb sense of position. Larry Lloyd and Neil Ruddock were brief throwbacks but the trend has been epitomised by the Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson type. Until now.

Gerard Houllier, the current manager, is too cerebral and far too aware of his charge's sensitivities to inflict a pack of circling journalists on Sami Hyypia, but when he looks at his build you could understand if he was tempted. At 6ft 3in, the Finnish international is an imposing figure.

He is also one who is urgently required. Since Hansen and Lawrenson went to that football pitch in the Sky called the commentary box, Liverpool's chronic defensive weakness has been aerial frailty. Dracula, it was said on Merseyside, was more partial to crosses than Anfield's rearguard.

This was exposed frequently but rarely was it done so more blatantly than in April two years ago. Defeats by Manchester United are brooded on by Liverpool supporters and the image of Gary Pallister picking his way past defenders so static and feeble they could have been cardboard cut-outs to score twice in a 3-1 victory was a particularly ghastly one. The earnest search for a commanding centre-half began that day.

Hence the pounds 3.25m spent this summer on the towering Hyypia, who fitted Houllier's requirements virtually to the letter. Tall and commanding, reports from the Netherlands, where he had helped Willem II to second place in the Dutch league, also commented on an eagerness to learn. At 25, he is at an age where he can provide long service.

Houllier says it will be approaching Christmas before Hyypia can be judged fairly - "it took time for Marcel Desailly and Jaap Stam, who are outstanding defenders, to adjust to the English game" - but the Finn's performance against Arsenal was hugely promising. Dennis Bergkamp had to withdraw to near midfield to escape his attention while Thierry Henry recoiled into anonymity on the wing. This morning he will hope United's Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole are similarly obliging.

"The game here is unlike anything I've experienced before," Hyypia said. "It's so fast and hectic and for a player like me who has been used to football in Holland and Finland it's strange to be playing at high tempo matches week after week.

"I feel I am adapting well and have no doubts in my mind that, in time, my game will be ideally suited to the Premiership, but at the moment I'm at the early stage of my Liverpool career so I'm still learning."

Anfield's first impression suggested that learning process would be long and painful, because Watford's Michel Ngonge and Tommy Mooney gave him a torrid time in a 1-0 defeat that bore the trademarks of Liverpool at their careless worst. Hyypia looked like a big man with little spring in his heels, but it made a refreshing change to read his comments in the next home programme against Arsenal, where he acknowledged his mistakes. Some past Liverpool players would have run miles rather than admit a failing.

"I think I need to be a bit naughtier at times on the pitch," he said. "I don't mean that in a bad way, but you have to be aggressive when necessary against opposing forwards and it is a question of looking after yourself and not being bustled out of the game. There are far more challenges in English football than in the Dutch game.

"It was a wonderful day for me on a personal level because I made my Anfield debut and it was an experience I'll never forget, but I have to admit it was an awful result."

The Arsenal game suggested the challenges are beginning to go Hyypia's way, which is encouraging not only because he is still adjusting but because has yet to play in a team at anywhere near full strength. In theory, his central defensive partner should have been Stephane Henchoz, with Dietmar Hamann tidying up in front of him. However, neither player has been fit, although Henchoz did play for Switzerland in midweek.

Instead Hyypia has formed a partnership with Jamie Carragher which has looked solid enough to make you wonder whether it will be broken even when the walking wounded return. "Jamie's helped me a great deal," he acknowledged, "because he is a good talker so we know where the other one is, which is important."

Where Hyypia is now owes a lot to his childhood. Like many Scandinavians, he followed English football on television as a boy, forming an affection for Liverpool which helped persuade him to come to Anfield. If he had stayed at Willem II he would have been in the Champions' League, but potential and long-term allegiance persuaded him.

"Of course, I know what I have given up by signing for Liverpool," he said, "but I look at it another way and tell myself I have signed for one of the most famous clubs in the world.

"If I didn't believe the club was moving forward then I wouldn't have signed. I am ambitious and I want to be successful. The Liverpool manager convinced me he shares the same dreams and I'm confident with the quality of our squad, we'll soon be in the Champions' League."

Today, against the champions of Europe, he will get a better idea how close those dreams are. And how near Liverpool are to finding their new colossus.

`I think I have to be a bit naughtier at times on the pitch... you have to be aggressive when necessary against forwards'