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Westerveld, Hyypia, Henchoz, Babbel, Barmby, Ziege, Hamann, Berger, Smicer, Litmanen, McAllister and Fowler were all over 25. It was only after this season that his gradual reduction of the average age started to gain pace. Gérard Houllier deserves some credit for Benítez’ success in the Champions League, although precisely how much remains open to debate. Given two of Benítez’ signings (Morientes, Pellegrino) were ineligible for the Champions League, another (Carson) was a back-up goalkeeper who featured only once, and two more (Alonso and Josemi) missed several months –– and a series of key games –– with injury, it was mostly Houllier’s players who got the team to the final.

Why should he narrow his options, when he clearly doesn’t have to? The club could, of course, have offered him enough money to make it virtually impossible to refuse to sign a new deal. Perhaps they did. What he was clearly waiting for –– given he had enough money for several lifetimes –– was unequivocal proof that the club was moving in the right direction. While his contract was running out, that clearly wasn’t the case; it was regressing. When the club was improving, he never hesitated to sign a new deal –– and this includes the time between 18 and 21, when his star was burning so brightly he could have easily declined to put pen to paper and opted for a more lucrative move abroad, or agitated for the kind of move Wayne Rooney pulled off.

At Monaco, Fernando Morientes managed just nine league goals, but of course also scored that many again in a dazzling run to the Champions League final. So when put into context, Cissé’s 26 league goals during that campaign are not to be sneezed at, especially as he wasn’t playing in one of the truly outstanding French sides. In fact, during his time at Auxerre, the club had spent most of its time just outside the top three: a good side, but never a great one. com yards into space before it had even left his foot; he was near the halfway line, and in the blink of an eye down by the corner flag.

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