Alberto Aquilani has only played 3 minutes of Premier League football in over a month and for me it kind of typifies the current predicament that both Rafa Benitez and Liverpool find themselves in. I think most Reds fans believe that Aqua’s form hasn’t been good enough since his £20million move from Roma but we also know the mitigating circumstances which have prevented us from seeing the best of the 25 year old Italian international.
There are so many “what ifs” about this season that every time I think about them it makes me want to switch off the TV and forget football ever existed for a few days. Alas, it is my job as a football writer to highlight them to show how frustrating it has been to be a Liverpool fan this season. If we look at the league table at the same time last season, we had 61 points compared to only 48 this campaign. We would be two points off where Man Utd are right now if we had kept the same level. So why haven’t we?
If you start off the season badly, you tend to fall away very quickly. With injuries and the absence of any real creative outlet without Gerrard in the team, and the lack of any security at the back, confidence just seeped away despite rallies in ‘cup final’ efforts against Manchester United and Everton. The question becomes ‘what if’ players such as Aquilani, Gerrard and Torres started off the season fit and kept going throughout without injuries? If Aquilani had started off without his ankle injury, would the season have been much different? I believe certainly the season would have been an improvement for he would have had a full pre season behind him and although we might not have seen the best of him at the start, by now I believe he would be coming into his element as the season draws to a close.
The facts are though, Benitez bought the player whilst injured and we had to wait a fair few months for any game time from him at all. Then once back fit, Rafa wraps him in cotton wool, preventing him from playing in the majority of away games and any physical encounters such as Blackburn last week and Wigan last night. It has led to a bizarre situation where a £20million signing has to settle for a place on the bench when the team is plainly not playing well. A case in point when he began to show his class against Spurs in a 2-0 win back in January but then was named as a sub in the next game in a drab 0-0 draw against Wolves. Rafa believes that playing him would only make the team play worse in such games:
“When you have been injured for a while it’s not easy for a player. Then, when you are available and the team isn’t doing well, it makes it even more difficult. You have to decide if you can afford to give him two or three games when you know. He’s maybe not at the level he could be, so you could end up losing some of them. Alberto isn’t stupid, he knows the priority now has to be the team and what’s best for that. All he can do is keep training and make sure he is ready when we need him.”
Certainly when your back is against the wall and you are fighting for every point, defensive solidity is key, and that is why Aquilani’s attacking flair has been sacrificed. However it is also the case that we are only in this position because of our bad start to the season. The direct consequence of signing Aqua was that he became one of the many injury casualties earlier in the season which led to the poor form. Now to recover form, Aquilani is left out to play a defensive style to secure the backline. It is basically not the Italian’s fault. His late return to fitness has led to him playing his first season in a new league whilst playing in a side which is going through difficult times. It is certainly the case that one of the reasons for such a poor season is the decision by Rafa to buy Aquilani when he did. Now we will have to hope that both Liverpool and Aquilani come to life next season.