By the time Michael Owen left Liverpool for Real Madrid in August 2004, any fears that the Reds’ firepower would suffer were assuaged by the fact that, a month earlier, they’d signed the hottest young striker in Europe.
Breaking through at Auxerre in the early 2000s, Djibril Cisse was frightening. His shock of platinum hair ensured he caught the eye, but it was his searing speed, skill and thunderous finishing that elicited excitement among his growing swathe of admirers.
When Liverpool stumped up £14m to sign the coveted 23-year-old, he was closing in on 100 career goals and was coming off his most prolific season, having scored 30 goals in 53 games in 2003-04. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, a year into the Abramovich era and spending at historic levels, forked out £12m more to sign Didier Drogba from Marseille that same summer, with the Ivorian’s value having ballooned thanks to impressive performances in the UEFA Cup. But Cisse had outscored Drogba by seven goals the previous term to finish as Ligue 1’s highest scorer.
The stage was set, then, for Cisse to make a significant impact upon his Premier League arrival. A senior France international with four full seasons in the Auxerre first team under his belt, he was ready for the next step in his career. And spearheading Rafa Benitez’s Anfield revolution seemed like the perfect platform for a young striker aiming to deliver on the hype.
The problem was that Cisse wasn’t a Benitez signing.
Previous manager Gerard Houllier had lobbied hard for a number of years for the purchase of his prodigious compatriot but, with everything finally in place for Cisse’s signing, he left the club by mutual consent just two weeks before his prized centre-forward’s arrival. Although Benitez elected not to pull the plug on the deal, the managerial switch complicated the situation Cisse was walking into: he went from being the shiny new attacking centre-piece playing under a manager who’d long plotted his signing, to having to win over a tactician who valued organisation and rigidity high above flair and improvisation.
Still, Cisse began positively, sweeping home a confident finish in his Premier League debut against Tottenham at Anfield. And he scored again in Liverpool’s first group game in the Champions League, a 2-0 win over Monaco, who’d been runners-up in the competition the season before. But it would be more than five weeks before Cisse would add to his tally. Despite his skillset appearing a sound fit for the high-octane English game, the Frenchman was struggling to adapt. "The game is much faster and more physical than I am used to,” he admitted in an interview with LFC Magazine, “and I am being singled out for close marking."
By late October, with just three goals from his first 15 appearances, horrific misfortune looked to have robbed Cisse of any chance to further acclimatise that season. While contesting the ball with Blackburn’s Jay McEveley, his studs got caught awkwardly in the Ewood Park turf. The result was a double leg fracture.
As his elaborate, brightly coloured hairstyles indicated, Cisse was a flamboyant, fun-loving character throughout his career. At Liverpool, he shared dressing-room DJ duties with Luis Garcia, and he acquired the title Lord of the Manor of Frodsham when he bought a home in the Cheshire town. For all his idiosyncrasies, though, Cisse’s commitment to his craft could not be questioned. Following his devastating injury in the game against Blackburn, he dedicated himself to his recovery plan and was able to return to action in time for Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final versus Juventus in April, months sooner than even the most optimistic estimates. Starting Liverpool’s last Premier League game of the season, he scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa, thrusting himself into contention for a place in the Reds’ squad for the Champions League final 10 days later.
With Liverpool 3-0 down against AC Milan at half-time in Istanbul, Benitez instructed Cisse to get ready, as he was coming off the bench. Didi Hamann would replace full-back Steven Finnan to shore up midfield, and the French forward would threaten the Italians’ ageing backline with his pace in behind. It was only as the players were getting ready to leave the changing room and return to the fray that it was pointed out to Benitez that 12 Liverpool players were about to take to the field. Realising he hadn’t decided who Cisse would replace, and that he would have no remaining substations to use after Harry Kewell had to be exchanged for Vladimir Smicer through injury in the 23rd minute, the Spanish manager told his speedy striker to put his tracksuit back on. He’d have to wait a little longer for his opportunity.
Cisse ended up coming on for a tired Milan Baros with just five minutes of the 90 left. The Reds miraculous comeback was already complete; extra time and penalties loomed. When it came down to spot kicks, Cisse volunteered without hesitation and scored second for Liverpool in the shootout.
Despite the having fought back from injury to contribute to one of the most historic nights in Liverpool’s history, Benitez was prepared to sell Cisse in the summer of 2005, just one year after the striker moved to Merseyside. The Spanish boss wanted to bring Michael Owen back to the club and hoped to offload either or both of Baros and Cisse to fund the move. Amid serious interest from Marseille, the plug was pulled on a potential exit for Cisse when talks over a bid for Owen, who instead joined Newcastle, broke down. But Liverpool’s £7m signing of another England striker, Peter Crouch, meant he slid down the pecking order.
Cisse found himself in and out of the team during his second season with the Reds, and Benitez would often deploy him out of position, wide on the right wing. He still managed an impressive return of 19 goals in all competitions, though. Only captain Steven Gerrard, who returned a career-high 23, could better the France international’s tally. He provided key contributions, too, scoring twice as a late substitute in Liverpool’s 3-1 UEFA Super Cup victory over CSKA Moscow, and he volleyed a spectacular opener against West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup final, a 3-3 classic in which the Reds eventually triumphed on penalties.
Consistency eluded Cisse throughout the campaign, though. While he will always be able to point to the caveat of being played on the wing and never truly having the belief of his manager, he would frustrate with missed chances and poor decisions as often as he could delight with electric bursts and rapier strikes.
Disaster struck again for the unfortunate Frenchman when he suffered a second broken leg while playing for France in a friendly against China in the build-up to the 2006 World Cup. He was loaned to Marseille at the beginning of the following season, recovering to play again in October. Themove was made permanent, for £6m, in the summer of 2007.
With seven goals in his final 10 games for Liverpool – the last of which in the FA Cup final – it felt like Cisse was finally finding his feet at Anfield before fate cruelly intervened once more. With his devastating pace, youth and scoring pedigree, better luck could have seen Cisse make the kind of impact Fernando Torres enjoyed upon his arrival in 2007. Instead, he is remembered for promise only sparingly fulfilled.