At Anfield on Sunday 6th March, 2011, new heroes were sewn into Liverpool folklore: Luis Suarez for his magnificent skills and endless taunting of the Premier League’s top side’s defence and Dirk Kuyt for his first LFC hattrick and match winning goal-poaching. Liverpool beat their old foes by three goals to one with a fantastic display full of invention and determination and the goal-scorer and -creator named above have rightly taken a lot of acclaim.
But spare a thought for another, less heralded but every bit as important performer on the day; one who played slightly over an hour for the home side: Sotirios Kyrgiakos.
Named on the bench at the start of the game, Soto made his entrance after 24 minutes as a replacement for the hamstrung Fabio Aurelio. For a defender to enter the fray at any point as a substitute requires great powers of concentration and adaptation; for one to enter unexpectedly early in a game of such magnitude as Liverpool versus Manchester United requires something more – our big Greek needed to call on all his years of experience and his first-rate game mentality to get up to speed instantaneously, and given that he went on to give neither Rooney nor Berbatov the slightest sniff in the game deserves great credit for doing so.
He was, as always, a tower of strength in the air; all United’s crosses were ably dealt with by Soto and his partner in crime Martin Skrtel, while the ground-based duels were a similar story, with neither forward able to get a run on goal from either in front of or behind Kyrgiakos at any point. In the second half, with Liverpool leading and as they sat back looking to hit United on the break, the defensive line dropped deeper and the away side enjoyed longer spells of possession. But Kyrgiakos and his defensive cohorts remained unfazed and, save for the odd corner which needed Meireles to clear off the line, remained largely untroubled for the entire game.
It speaks volumes for Kyrgiakos’ professional attitude and winners mentality that he was able to step up in such a big game without any problems of ‘feeling his way into the match’ or making any early mistakes.
To me, it evoked memories of a similar game and similarly experienced Anfield defender; the man who Soto came in to replace no less. Sami Hyypia.
Almost two years to the day earlier, Alvaro Arbeloa was due to line up at right-back for Liverpool at Old Trafford against the same opposition, Manchester United. In the warm-up, however, Arbeloa suffered an injury and our great Finn Hyypia was drafted in as a late starter, given only a few minutes warm up time and asked to stop the (again) current league leaders from breaching the Reds’ goal. Liverpool turned in a masterclass performance that day too, winning 4-1 in Manchester and owing much to the outstanding performance of Hyypia who, like Kyrgiakos this Sunday past, showed great professionalism (and no shortage of ability) to come in unexpectedly and turn in a stellar performance for his team.
Sami and Soto carry some similar traits as defenders; both of course are exceptional in the air and commanding in the tackle and while neither are blessed with pace they are more than adept at reading the game and positioning themselves accordingly. Sami was perhaps more of an organiser and comfortable with the ball at either foot, and will for both his length of time spent at the club and the number of trophies he won while here be forever remembered as far more of an icon than Kyrgiakos is likely to achieve, but the playing similarities between the two are evident; testament of course to the fact that one came in to replace the other.
Kuyt and Suarez will take the plaudits for Sunday’s victory, and against the biggest opposition the attacking players who make the difference will usually be the most noticed. That is why teams pay such big fees for forwards.
But in Sami Hyypia and Sotirios Kyrgiakos Liverpool have been fortunate to have two defenders who, quite aside from popping up with the odd headed bullet of a goal, are consistently and quietly excellent in defence when it matters most; players who do not blow their own trumpet or kick up a fuss when left out of the team and retain the quality and mentality to switch it on at a moment’s notice when their team turns to them suddenly in a time of great need.
Two of those occasions recently have come against one of our biggest enemies of all, and Liverpool supporters everywhere should be grateful that we were able to turn to such giants; the old guard of the Liverpool defence, and players who we know will never let us down.