Hyypia the vintage Red ready to stop Chelsea's flow

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Sami Hyypia has never shirked a challenge, which is just as well since they are coming in twos right now. This evening he and Jamie Carragher must subdue Didier Drogba and Hernan Crespo as Liverpool tangle with Chelsea. In the longer term, the duo the Finnish defender has to keep at bay are Daniel Agger and Gabriel Paletta.

At 32, Hyypia will be the vintage Red in a Liverpool side vying to beat their bitter Champions' League adversaries and reach their first FA Cup final since 2001. "I'm not getting any younger," he grins, but that statement of fact is far from an admission that he is ready to step aside and allow Agger or Paletta to claim his place. Agger, 21, cost Rafael Benitez £5.8m from Brondby, while the Argentinian Paletta, 20, will formalise a £2m move from Banfield to Anfield this summer. Behind them, from Liverpool's successful FA Youth Cup team, come Godwin Antwi and Jack Hobbs.

Hyypia knew that it was an area Benitez aimed to strengthen from the moment he returned to training after Liverpool's European Cup triumph last May. "On the first day back after my summer holiday, the manager pulled me into his office and said he was going to get someone in as competition for me and Carra. In fact he has bought two!

"But I said: 'Fine by me. I'm always open for a challenge.' Competition for places is good for players because they can't rest (on their laurels) and their concentration has to be perfect. Physically, I've always taken care of myself. But it can help if you know there's someone on the bench, trying to get your place."

However, the £3m recruit from Willem II in 1999 concedes he "never expected" to play so regularly this season. Liverpool's 10th meeting with Chelsea in two years will be Hyypia's 58th match for club and country this season, an odyssey that began against Welsh part-timers TNS and has led via Andorra and Lisbon to Old Trafford tonight.

Critics have been arguing for two years that he is slowing down, yet Liverpool are striving for a 31st clean sheet of the season. The former captain acknowledges Carragher's influence on maintaining his performance levels. "Carra is very easy to play with. He's also one of the most competitive and hard-working people I've ever met. Training with quality players helps you to improve. I improve every day, even if I am this old!"

Benitez's twin towers will need to be at their sharpest against a probable combination of Drogba and Crespo, in contrast to previous encounters in which the Ivory Coast striker has foraged alone. "Chelsea have been playing a different way recently from what they have done against us before," says Hyypia. "I don't know whether they'll go back to the old or stick with the new. We have to be prepared for whatever tactics they try."

Including, to judge by how Jose Mourinho's team have behaved in the past nine meetings, a tendency to react to the slightest contact as if hit by a bullet.

"When any striker goes into the box, you have to be careful not to foul him," says the Finn. "For all the things some players might do to get a penalty, there's a referee. I hope he can make the right decision."

If Chelsea play one striker, it is likely to be Drogba. "Physically he's very tough; strong, quite quick and good in the air. But I always think I am not there alone. I have my team-mates to help."

It is a neat encapsulation of the Liverpool ethos. Hyypia led them to a treble in 2001 and is confident he can complete his set with a championship medal before he leaves. But he does not pretend to be immune from the passage of time, and those young centre-backs snapping at his heels. "I can see more and more big matches in the future for this club. I want to win this semi, go to Cardiff again for the final and try to win that. But I'm not getting younger. I need to go into these games like they're my last."