Munich - Sami Hyypiä already enjoys hero status in Leverkusen, but that is nothing compared to the affection Liverpool fans hold for him. And that love is reciprocated, as Hyypiä told Germany's Bild newspaper ahead of his return to Merseyside.
The Finland international pulled on the Reds' shirt 464 times along the way to establishing himself as something of a legend at Anfield Road. He returned on Sunday to take his place on the visitors' bench - an odd sensation, but one he was nevertheless looking forward to.
"It feels like I'm coming home," said the 38 year-old, who accepted Leverkusen's offer to become their full-time head coach together with Sascha Lewandowski having successfully guided the club into the UEFA Europa League while working on an interim basis last season. "The fans are bound to remember what I did here. I still have a good relationship with them."
Hyypiä won nine trophies in a decade at Anfield before moving to Leverkusen, where he ended his playing career in 2011. It started with the treble-winning 2000/01 season in which Finland's eight-times player of the year got his hands on the English League Cup, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, He won the Champions League in 2005, reaching the final again two years later, while he picked up a second FA Cup winner's medal in 2006.
Result not forthcoming
His return for a pre-season friendly was thus an emotionally-charged occasion."I first have to make sure I go into the right dressing room," he quipped ahead of the encounter. As it transpired, some sloppy work at the back that will not have pleased the former defensive linchpin in the least helped the hosts to a two-goal lead before the interval - and a goal apiece after it left Bayer on the wrong end of a 3-1 defeat . "Liverpool were good value for the win, they played well and very effectively," Hyypiä conceded. There was some consolation at any rate to be had from the rousing reception the home fans gave their former hero.
Bayer's season begins in earnest with a trip to Carl Zeiss Jena in the first round of the DFB Cup next Saturday. Hyypiä will be keen to avoid the fate which befell his predecessor on the Leverkusen bench, Robin Dutt, who failed to get over the first hurdle 12 months ago by losing to Dynamo Dresden, a defeat which set the tone for a troubled season.
Home is where the heart is
Hyypiä is not looking any further than that, although his long-term future plans should still include more trips to Anfield. A permanent return to Liverpool would be hard to turn down, were the opportunity to present itself. "You can never say never to such a good thing," he said. "Liverpool still has a very big place in my heart."