AT the start of this season Sami Hyypia was not expecting to play as many games in a red shirt as he has in past campaigns.
Daniel Agger’s emergence as first choice centre back alongside Jamie Carragher, coupled with Hyypia entering the twilight of his career, was supposed to result in the big Finn playing a bit part role in Liverpool’s long awaited title challenge.
But an injury to Agger has seen Hyypia step back into the limelight and, according to his manager and defensive partner, he has done anything but let his team down.
“Sami is a top class professional and that’s why he’s still been able to perform as well as he has been doing even at 34,” said Carragher.
“There was a spell when the critics were looking at his performances and maybe getting on his back a bit but, when it comes down to it, it is difficult for anyone to play well when the team isn’t playing well.
“We were all having a sticky time but since drawing at home to Spurs we have gone on to pick up eight points from our last four games and when you think during that time we’ve had tough games like Everton and Blackburn away and Arsenal at home that isn’t a bad tally and it could even have been more.
“So, in the last few weeks, the team has started to play better, so has Sami, and in the last few games he has probably been one of our better players.”
Such is Carragher’s respect for Hyypia and his achievements for Liverpool, he believes it inevitable that he will go down in history as a bona fide Anfield legend.
He said: “I’ve been saying it for years, Sami will go down in history alongside the likes of Ron Yeats, Alan Hansen and Emlyn Hughes.
“When you think of the foreign players who have played in this country, for me Sami is up there with Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola.
“Not many players have come to the Premiership from abroad and played for just one club for as long as Sami has and in all the time he’s been at Liverpool you could probably count his bad performances on the fingers of one hand.”
Today, Hyypia will win his 84th cap for Finland when his national team takes on Azerbaijan in a Euro 2008 qualifier in Helsinki and he will again be involved on Wednesday night when the Finns make the trip to Portugal.
The travelling and the sheer number of games he is playing is a concern for Rafa Benitez, but the Reds boss believes Hyypia’s professionalism and mentality mean he is ready for the challenges awaiting on his return.
He said: “Sami is a fantastic person, a very good professional and a very good player.
“When he was playing too many games in a row he was a bit tired and that affected him.
“We had a few players in defence who were injured so we could not change him and give him the rest that we wanted to give him.
“He was also playing a lot of games with the national team and then coming back here and playing games for us – at 34 years of age this is not easy and it was not easy for him.
“When he had time, when he had three or four days training normally without playing he was fitter and this made a difference.
“His mentality is excellent. He provides a fantastic example for the young players and for his other team mates.”
It isn’t just the young players who are learning from Hyypia’s example either.
Carragher readily admits the way the big centre back has conducted himself since arriving at Anfield from Dutch side Willem II in 1999 has made a lasting impression on him.
He said: “You are always learning in football and you try to take things from all the players you work with.
“In Sami’s case the thing that has always impressed me most is the way he looks after himself.
“He’s never carried much weight or anything like that.
“Even when he was on the fringes of the team he never let his fitness levels drop and that can be a difficult time for someone who has been first choice for so long.
“It’s that kind of professionalism which has allowed Sami to play at the top level for so long and hopefully he’ll be there for some time to come as well.”