Cissé in league of his own as Liverpool make final impression

Liverpool 2 - Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Football

At the end of the most quixotic season in the history of Liverpool Football Club, the Kop displayed the wisdom of the years and all the glory and the pain. First they sang: "We're the greatest team in Europe and we're going to Istanbul." Then, more reflectively, they added "Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be."

At the end of the most quixotic season in the history of Liverpool Football Club, the Kop displayed the wisdom of the years and all the glory and the pain. First they sang: "We're the greatest team in Europe and we're going to Istanbul." Then, more reflectively, they added "Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be."

One point at least seemed certain before the charge at that ultimate Champions' League windmill beside the Bosphorus. It was that Djibril Cissé - the French striker who is operating in the debris of a season wrecked by injury almost before it began and is still plainly a little way from full fitness - is almost certainly Rafael Benitez's best chance of stealing an unlikely victory over Milan on 25 May.

Benitez was coy enough when talking to Italian journalists, saying that while he was pleased with the Frenchman's powerful and opportunistic showing - he scored both goals, one a penalty - the main benefit of the victory over an Aston Villa as enigmatic as ever was a sharp increase in his attacking options.

"Cissé showed that he is strong enough now to lead the attack - and, of course, we know what Milan Baros can do," Benitez said. "So I can play one or the other or both, certainly at some point in the game. I'm very happy about this development. I think it is time for us to get a little bit of good luck."

Benitez started just three certainties for the opening line-up in Istanbul, acting skipper Jamie Carragher, playmaker Xabi Alonso, and the powerful John Arne Riise. Long before the end, though, their number had increased to at least four. Cissé, whose head seemed clear of both white dye and confused ambition, was such a vital presence he also brought some authentic animation from Harry Kewell.

One moment hovered on the fringe of the sublime. Cissé picked up the ball for a quick free-kick and sent it lancing through the Villa cover. Kewell collected it with that natural skill that has been so tragically frittered away since his controversial move from Leeds United, beat a defender and then his shot skimmed over the bar.

That would have been a point of authentic ignition even in a match overshadowed by the desperate survival caperings at the bottom of the Premiership. However, it was not exactly without significance when you considered the challenge facing a Liverpool team that has found its strongest resources at the moment of maximum importance.

Dietmar Hamann, such a vital presence in the semi-final second-leg defeat of Chelsea before his legs gave way, took over from Igor Biscan for the last 20 minutes and resumed a fine, implicit understanding with the acute Alonso. With Steven Gerrard nursing only a minor injury, Benitez has perhaps more reason to believe in an astonishing triumph than at any point in the run to Istanbul.

"I've already said that next season it would be impossible to have worse luck than we have suffered this time, but maybe we now have good fortune at exactly the right time," Benitez said.

"It's been a strange season but I believe in my players. Yes, I do think we have the means to beat Milan and if we do that we can look forward to the new season with great confidence."

That sense of a powerful destiny suffused every phase of a game which could easily have died of irrelevance. Two minutes before Cissé opened the scoring in the 20th minute from the penalty spot - after he had been brought down by Mark Delaney - Carragher made an extraordinary surge through the Villa cover and sent a shot just past a post and into the side netting. For a fraction of a second, Anfield erupted in the belief that their man of potentially all seasons had acquired another notch of honour.

Cissé's second, a crisp shot after a run down the right by Josemi, came in the 27th minute. When Gareth Barry scored for Aston Villa in the middle of the second half, Cissé's thoughts had doubtless already flown all the way to the edge of another continent.

Goals: Cissé pen (20) 1-0; Cissé (27) 2-0; Barry (67) 2-1.

Liverpool (4-4-2) Carson; Josemi, Carragher, Pellegrino, Warnock; Nunez (Finnan, 80), Alonso, Biscan (Hamann 71), Riise;

Cissé, Kewell (Baros,61). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Hyypia.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; De La Cruz, Laursen, Delaney, Barry; Solano, Davis, Djemba-Djemba, Hendrie (Samuel,49); Angel (Cole, 65), Vassell (Moore, h-t) Substitutes not used: Henderson (gk), McCann.

Referee: B Knight (Kent).

Man of the match: Cissé.

Attendance: 43,406

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