For the second week in a row, this column features a player who was brought by Rafael Benitez from Valencia to Liverpool in a move replicating that of the current Newcastle manager. Last week it was Fabio Aurelio, who signed for the Reds in 2006, and now we’ll go back a year further to the arrival of Mali midfielder Mohamed Sissoko.
The 20-year-old actually began his professional career as a forward with Auxerre, but he was reassigned to the defensive midfield role that would become his norm by Benitez when joining Valencia in 2003. He was in the squad that won the La Liga and UEFA Cup in 2004, but with a star-studded midfield that included Pablo Aimar, Ruben Baraja, and David Albelda, the youngster found game time hard to come by. He was afforded more opportunities by Claudio Ranieri after the Italian took over at the Mestalla, but he did not hesitate to reunite with Benitez at Liverpool in the weeks following the Merseysiders’ Champions League triumph.
The French-born Sissoko made a good start to life at Anfield, forging an important role as an industrious, tough-tackling midfielder who routinely broke up the opposition’s play in the middle of the park to win dirty possession so that the team’s more creative players could thrive. It was a brief that inevitably drew comparisons with Claude Makelele, the market leader in that role in the mid-2000s, and he was fully deserving of the FA Cup medal he claimed in May 2006 after Liverpool’s memorable penalty shoot-out triumph over West Ham in Cardiff.
Indeed, Sissoko’s combative nature saw him accrue a nasty eye injury in an ill-fated Champions League tie against Benfica, one in which Liverpool were dethroned as European champions, but he continued to win the approval of Benitez and supporters during the 2006/07 season, playing his part in the Reds’ run to the Champions League final in Athens. Indeed, his form in a red shirt saw him attract interest from the likes of Barcelona and Juventus, but Sissoko turned away admirers to remain on Merseyside. The 2007/08 campaign got off to a good start for the Malian, who scored in an early season win at Sunderland, but a woeful lapse in concentration which led to Marseille’s winning goal at Anfield in a Champions League group game spelled the beginning of the end at his time with Liverpool.
Just as he reunited with Benitez at Liverpool, he would resume links with another former manager in January 2008 when signing for Ranieri’s Juventus. He enjoyed a positive first year in Turin, forming a no-nonsense midfield partnership with Claudio Marchisio as the Old Lady returned to the Champions League following two years away due to the Calciopoli scandal. However, a foot injury in March 2009 led to a nightmarish two-year spell where he was rarely far from the treatment table.
Sissoko moved on to Paris Saint Germain in the summer of 2011, joining the French club at a time when the Qatari-led project was just beginning. The gradual strengthening of PSG’s squad as they made the most of their new-found wealth spelled bad news for the midfielder, who was struggling for game time in what ought to have been the peak years of his career. A loan spell at Fiorentina followed before he left PSG by mutual consent in autumn 2013.
Having represented multiple illustrious European outfits for the best part of a decade, the nomadic wind-down of Sissoko’s career duly began once his PSG days were over. He was five months without a club before spending a year and a half with Levante. He then moved to the first of three Asian countries where he would play football, joining China’s Shanghai Shenhua in 2015 and then venturing to a short stint in India with FC Pune City. There was a return to Europe earlier this year when he joined Italian club Ternana – for all of 25 days. In April, the Asian tour resumed with a move to Indonesia’s Mitra Kukar, where he has eight months remaining of a year-long contract.
It seemed a pity that Sissoko’s career turned into that of a journeyman after leaving PSG when he was still just 28. However, he had done enough before then to earn the respect of leading European clubs and even though his name might not have featured on the back of too many replica Liverpool shirts, his selfless role in the team won him plenty of admirers in the Kop.