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What have the Romans ever done for us?

Alberto Aquilani

By Patrick McLoughlin.

Italy is famous for many things, from pizza and pasta to Mussolini and the mafia. But what have the Romans ever done for us? Well, there are the roads and sanitation, and medicine, and education but apart from all that they can’t really claim Premiership footballers. With the exceptions of Gianfranco Zola and Paolo di Canio Italians have found English football a very difficult league to master.

Many players, not only Italian have found the transition from Italy to England difficult. Serie A is a much slower paced league, it champions defence over attack and is very tactically astute; the antithesis of this is the Premier League which demands speed, aggression and strong emphasis on scoring goals. However, that is not to say that Italy is a poor footballing nation, because its not. Italy are the current world champions, four-times champions in their history, that’s three more than England.

The English FA also decided to appoint an Italian as the head of their national team in 2007 in the form of Fabio Capello, twice the manager of any English candidates in my opinion. However, it seems to be a national trait that Italians are notoriously bad travellers, whereas a Frenchman can be found in almost every European league, Italians cannot, during the 2006 World Cup, although eventual winners, Italy had all its players contracted to Italian teams; the only other nation to have such a domestic player bias in the tournament was Saudi Arabia.

Enter Alberto Aquilani; drafted in to fill a Xabi Alonso shaped hole, whether a Liverpool fan or not you have to feel a little sympathy for the guy. His task is almost monumental, with Roma in his native Italy since he was a boy, he signed for Liverpool to replace to out-going Xabi Alonso. Alonso’s boots are not easy to fill, Liverpool’s best player during the 2008/2009 season he is a player of unique quality, able to break up player, dictate a game as well as score he was the tick-tock in the Liverpool clock.

Aquilani not only had Alonso’s shadow looming over him but also a £20M price-tag as well as a persistent ankle injury which would keep him out of action until October, to add to this he’s left the city of his birth, he can’t speak English and had never played outside of Italy. There are parallels with the case of Andrea Dossena, Liverpool’s first ever Italian international, although he started the season with Liverpool he was later sold to Napoli in January making a measly eighteen appearances just over two years. The odds are firmly stacked against him.

Nevertheless, Liverpool fans are desperate for Aquilani to succeed, mainly to heal the pain of Alonso’s ignominious sale. The simplest of completed passes or a long ball are cheered with zealous roars and cheers; this is of course on the rare occasions Aquilani plays. Since signing in August Aquilani has made only fifteen appearances, mainly as a substitute and although claims he is fit is often selected on the bench by Rafa Benitez.

Benitez’s man management has come under close scrutiny this season; Albert Riera has claimed there is no communication between the manager and the squad, while former Liverpool defender Alvaro Arbeloa describes Benitez and his style as “robotic”, whether Aquilani has not fully adapted yet or perhaps Benitez feels Lucas provides a better option is yet to be seen, but what is known is that Anfield is growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of opportunities Aquilani has been given.

It was Benitez’s transfer blunderings that forced Alonso out of Anfield, and now with the team lacking any direction in midfield he must surely use the Roman Number four to his advantage. Lucas and Mascherano are two very good midfielders; however, they are two very similar midfielders, both extremely effective yet unable to influence a game such as Alonso.

Similarly, Steven Gerrard, a world-class midfielder has been below-par this season and has not performed as well as he can. This leaves Aquilani who simply hasn’t been given a chance to perform, despite a very good performance at Anfield against Fulham recently; he was still substituted after 65 minutes leaving fans wondering what he has to do to earn a regular place in the side, Aquilani is in real danger of becoming the most high profile casualty of Benitez’s dreaded squad rotation policy.

Nonetheless, this article is not intended to be an attack on Benitez; although the management of Aquilani has certainly hampered his development and cannot be ignored, however, I want Liverpool fans to analyse the player himself, watch him in games and make an honest assessment of him, without Alonso-tinted glasses.

A series of injuries at Roma left him out of the team for almost entire seasons and although capped by Italy he is still not considered for regular international duty. Although the Anfield medical staff now claims that his ankle injuries are behind him he is still often injured, anything from thigh strains to virus’ have cropped up and paint the picture of a very fragile player. Perhaps most concerning is the fact that when he does play he defiantly doesn’t seem to have the physical presence or toughness required for a Premiership central midfielder, signed injured he was always going to be a calculated risk, however, it is looking more likely that the risk has not paid off. I hope I’m wrong as I think Liverpool’s problems this season have stemmed from a lack of creativity and leadership in midfield, the absence of Alonso has had a bigger impact than anyone could have imagined.

Aquilani may require further time to adapt, his former captain and Roma team-mate Francesco Totti certainly believes he will make an impact in England, saying, “Alberto is an incredibly talented player, with great technique and an excellent understanding of the game. He also has a powerful shot with both feet — he really is a complete midfielder. He is elegant and smart — these are his main characteristics.”

Certainly what Liverpool have been missing but to see him in games such as the cup defeat against Reading he seems to flinch out of challenges and not overly commit himself during games. He has often been guilty of giving the ball away in unnecessary situations as well as a general lack of passion, reminiscent of a certain Harry Kewell. My question to all Liverpool fans: ‘Is he really good enough?’

Don’t get me wrong I want Aquilani to succeed; he must surely have talent and just needs a platform to show it, however, I feel that either Benitez has lost faith in him or he simply isn’t cut out for the Premier League and its demands. One final thought to consider, Aquilani’s transfer fee has been publicised as £20M but it is not a single payment, rather £5M up front with the remainder going to Roma based on appearances a clear sign that Liverpool were hedging their bets on an injury prone player, don’t be too surprised if he is finds his way back to Italy this summer while his reputation and re-sale value are still quite high.

What do Liverpool fans think about the signing of Aquilani? Should he be given another season to prove himself? Please leave your comments below….

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