Seeing new £20 million signing Alberto Aquilani on the bench in recent weeks, it has been frustrating to me and other Liverpool supporters that we haven’t seen a lot more of him. The only real opportunity we have had to have a closer look at him was a brief, if promising, 14 minute outing in the Carling Cup defeat to Arsenal back in October, and a curious 30 second cameo in the now meaningless 1-0 victory against Debrecen last week. It seems that Benitez is being very cautious about how he brings the Italian attacking midfielder into the fold and it appears that he does not want to rush the new Liverpool signing back from ankle surgery which he had at Roma at the end of last season. In explaining why Aquilani had not started a match yet, Benitez explained:
It’s more simple than people think. He has been out for longer than we expected and, because he has been injured during the summer, he couldn’t train properly. Now it is much better and it is a case of improving his match fitness. We want to play him and we thought we might have been able to do that with the reserves at Wigan. That was called off (last week) but we had some games at Melwood and he played 45 minutes against our reserves last week. We are trying to improve him as quick as we can.
To some Liverpool fans, if you put a player on the bench for an important Champions League match or for a Merseyside derby he must be match fit. However, I think I can understand where the Liverpool manager is coming from on this argument. There is certainly an aspect of wrapping him in cotton wool about all this, but the main priority for Benitez is that Aquilani is fit for the long term. As the replacement for Xabi Alonso, we Liverpool fans are desperate for that X factor that will spark Liverpool’s attacking performances into life. It was evident again in the Merseyside derby that there was no fluidity to our play and we were lucky to win 2-0 given the chances that Everton had. The clamour for Aquilani must be taken in this context, but Benitez is thinking much further ahead. He wants a player who can play and excel for the club in the next five years, rather than somebody who can be a quick fix for Liverpool’s immediate problems.
The priority is then, to get Aquilani fit by gradually easing him into first team action. As Benitez said, reserve team matches are where he needs to start at rather than coming into the full force of a Merseyside derby. There was never any real chance of him starting against Everton, for there would have been a great risk of an injury in such a hotly contested encounter, not only from heavy tackles but just through the sheer intensity of the game. It is a difficult balancing act between the need to get Aquilani fit and the needs of the team, a fact Benitez was all too aware of:
When you have a player who is not fit, he is always going to need time to settle in to a game; if the game is tight and he makes mistakes, then you have a problem. We want to protect the player but, at the same time, we want to keep winning games; he understands that he needs to be a little bit fitter before he can play .It has not been easy (to not play him) but we are giving him more encouragement in training sessions and he is getting much, much better. We know he is a top-class player and we want to do the best for him and the team; but the best for the player and the team sometimes means he cannot play. Think about this example. We were winning 1-0 (against Debrecen) the other day and me and (assistant manager) Sammy (Lee) were talking about playing him. But if we played him for the last 20 minutes, when they were attacking a little bit more and he is not settled, maybe it will be the situation will become worse. It is not easy finding the balance but he is getting better all the time.
It certainly seems like a conservative approach from Benitez, after all the only real way to get match fit is to play matches, but supporters must think in terms of Aquilani’s previous injury record. According to the Liverpool doctors and coaching staff, the young Italian has suffered many more injuries during his career because he was rushed back too quickly by over eager coaches during his time at Roma. Benitez does not want to make the same mistakes they did, and have him out for another six months. From what glimpses I saw of him against Arsenal, we may have a very good player on our hands, but he is no good to us on the treatment table if we bring him into the side too quickly to fix long-standing issues in the midfield. Hopefully, we will see more of him at the weekend in a less intense encounter against Blackburn Rovers, and see his gradual return to full match fitness. Then we will see if he is worth the wait.