One of the sub-plots of tonight’s 202nd Merseyside derby involves a player that snubbed Everton and instead chose to move to Anfield and become part of the Rafa-lution. Momo Sissoko joined Liverpool and his former boss Rafael Benitez in the summer for £5.6million after coming desperately close to becoming a blue. When David Moyes told the press that the deal was more or less sewn-up it alerted Rafa Benitez, who made enquiries of his own. Liverpool had an offer accepted; Momo had a decision to make.
For Momo though the decision was easy, and one that he fails to see anyone would have made any differently: “Any player in the world would have done the same as me. Between the two offers, I had to go for The Reds because they are the champions of Europe and I already knew Rafa Benitez.”
Everton fans will no doubt taunt Momo because of his summer snub. Moyes enraged those fans for his part in the failure to land the Mali international. Worse than that, he handed him on a plate to the their biggest rivals, and that triggered the start of what has been a disastrous season. The false dawn of their fourth-place finish last season saw them ridiculed by Reds fans as they failed at the first hurdle in both the Champions League qualifiers and the UEFA Cup. In the league they are barely above the relegation zone. They want Moyes out, and some fans have already started campaigns against him and his board, but in the mean-time their hatred may just be aimed at Momo. He says he’s ready, and if anything it may spur him on: “I am well prepared for anything the Everton fans have for me. I’m sure they will whistle at me from the first minute, but it doesn’t worry me.” Liverpool need to be ready in all parts of the field, as Everton will be hungry to get some points on the board, and will stop at nothing to get them.
For Rafael Benitez the signing of Momo was fairly straightforward, once he knew he was available: “We had an advantage over Everton. I already knew the player. He had good memories of winning trophies with me at Valencia. We knew Everton were interested, but it was easy to sign him.”
It was also revealed by Rafa that he when he first had Sissoko playing for him it was as a striker. Signed from Auxerre, probably by the club president rather than Benitez himself, Sissoko had played part of a friendly for Valencia when Benitez hit a problem. A player was injured and all Valencia’s subs had been used, but the referee allowed Rafa to bring Sissoko back onto the field with the blessing of opponents, St Gallen of Switzerland. Momo was asked to play deeper because of the circumstances, in the middle of the park.
His performance in that role stunned Rafa and his assistant Paco Ayesteran. Rafa recalls: “We put him in the middle and it was like, ‘Wow! What is this?’ After that we started working with him as a midfielder. We were looking at the numbers after each game in astonishment. Every game he was running 11 or 12 kilometres so it just required us to work on certain tactical situations with him because he’d always been a striker before.”
Comparisons with other players can put higher-than-necessary expectations on a player, and for the 20-year-old Sissoko it’s Patrick Vieira he’s being compared to. Rafa cautiously agrees with the comparison: “With time he can be much better, but I don’t want to put him under pressure. He’s a different kind of player to what we had last season. With Sissoko in front of the defence running, blocking and intercepting all the time, we’re conceding less, maybe where last season you had ten balls to defend this season you only have four. He makes it easier for the defenders, while Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard can play more offensively and on the counter-attack. It will be even better when Sissoko starts to learn about tactical movement.”
Rafa says Momo’s energy is still astonishing: “He has so much energy you wouldn’t believe how much he runs during a game. Every game he runs more than 11-12km. One game, Crouch ran more than him, but normally it is Sissoko who runs most. It depends on the position, but most of the other players run 8-10km, midfielders maybe a little bit more.”
Momo has settled in remarkably well to football in England. He’s been sent off once, for two yellow cards, and has just served a one-match suspension for five yellows, but he’s learning all the time: “We spoke to him about the style of football in England, about the referees and opponents. He has the qualities that we were looking for, so when we heard he was available we had to sign him. With time, Sissoko can become a much better player but I don’t want to put him under any pressure now. Momo is a player who can work for 90 minutes every game. He is improving every day, every training session.”
Thinking ahead to the days when Didi Hamann may no longer be able to play, Rafa sees Momo becoming an essential part of the team: “In one or two years he will have more experience and he will be a fantastic player and a key player for us.”
Rafa’s still looking for other players that will become key over the next couple of years, and one position he’s desperate to get cover for is central defence. Liverpool had agreed a deal with Spartak Moscow to sign Nemanja Vidic, matching a minimum-fee release clause. However Vidic was eventually sold for more than this amount – to the surprise of Fiorentina who had also matched this amount. Rafa Benitez had been unable to promise Vidic that he’d start every game, and the player chose Manchester United. Other issues had the manager concerned about the attitude of the player, and so Liverpool backed out.
This isn’t to say that Rafa’s plans have been dashed again. He’s also got a deal in place to bring Brondy’s Daniel Agger to Anfield, and apart from a few minor issues that deal is expected to go ahead next week. Links with Deportivo La Coruna’s Cesar and Fabricio Collocini have also been mentioned, but not as firmly as that for Agger.
There’s also a strong story coming from different sources that Deportivo Saprissa’s Christian Bolanos is going undergo a trial at Melwood. The winger played against the Reds in the Club World Cup earlier this month.