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Liverpool FC boss Rafa Benitez explains reluctance to play Alberto Aquilani

Alberto Aquilani

HAVE you heard the one about the £20m footballer who never starts for his team and has played only 22 minutes in three months?

Such is the curious case of the lesser-spotted Liverpool FC midfielder Alberto Aquilani.

Despite arriving with high praise from the likes of former Roma team-mates Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi and having earned 11 full caps with Italy, few Liverpool supporters could claim a real intimate knowledge of the 25-year-old when he was brought to Anfield by Rafael Benitez in August.

Not much has changed since, with Aquilani spending almost the first three months of his career in England recovering from a summer ankle operation.

Yet in the month following his 14-minute debut from the bench in the Carling Cup defeat at Arsenal on October 28, the Italian has been afforded just a seven-minute run-out in the 2-2 draw with Birmingham City and then a solitary minute against Debrecen in midweek.

Aquilani can expect to be on the bench again tomorrow with Benitez unprepared to hand out a full debut in what promises to be a frantic 212th Merseyside derby.

And the Liverpool manager accepts his team’s indifferent form has given him a quandary over how best to ease Aquilani into English football.

“The player is fit,” says Benitez. “He is training. Match fitness is something you can improve by playing games, so why have I not been playing him?

“Because the games are so close that if you put a player on the pitch who is not physically ready maybe he cannot settle down in time.

“If it is 1-0 like it was the other day and they are attacking a bit more and you changed Lucas, Gerrard or Mascherano to play him, maybe you are making a mistake because you will lose the control.

“If we were winning 3-0 in the first half of every game he would be playing because it would be easier for him to settle down.

“If we were losing we could play him because maybe he can change the game with his quality. Someone who has played football will understand this situation.

“It’s not easy because when you sign a player with quality you want to play him but you have to make sure it is the right moment for him and the team.”

Benitez admits the three-month wait for Aquilani to become available to play was at least twice that initially expected.

But he adds: “I’d still have signed him if I’d known that. We were bringing in a player with quality for five years. If he had been fully fit maybe he could have cost £25-30m.

“We were thinking of playing him for the reserves the other day against Wigan but the game was postponed so we organised a training game yesterday trying to give him more match fitness.

“We are trying to get him ready but it is a question of having to decide every game because it is not easy.

“The derby game is a physical one and everyone knows that when you are not fully fit they can be difficult to manage so you have to think about what’s best for the player and the best for the team.

“I was talking with Alberto and he understands. He is clever and he knows that he hasn’t played for months so he has to be ready and fully fit if he is to be able to play at the level that he can play in England. He knows that it is a matter of time.”

When Aquilani finally makes his full debut, Benitez is confident the Italian will have been worth the wait.

“He has quality, he is very clever, his touch is very good, he has mobility, he is dynamic and the final pass is very good,” says the manager. “We were looking for someone with these qualities.

“He was playing in a 4-2-3-1 as a second striker for Roma sometimes, on other times he played as a central midfielder, so he can play with any combination of Lucas, Mascherano and Gerrard.

“He is a different kind of player to the ones that we have now because he can pass and move, pass and move, support and he can give the final pass.”

Aquilani has been among many squad members to have suffered injury problems this season.

Steven Gerrard stepped up his quest for full fitness with another 89 minutes against Debrecen in midweek following a full shift in the 2-2 draw with Manchester City last weekend.

And Benitez warned Everton that the skipper is gradually getting back to his best, saying: “I think that the first week Gerrard was trying to do his best, but he was not physically at his level.

“Then for the last game I was really worried because he was working hard before and he was not physically well. The pitch was also very soft against Debrecen, but he did well.

“I’m sure that after these four days before we play Everton that he will be even better. He has no problems and he will get better every week.”

Gerrard was one of several players to sound their defiance in the wake of Liverpool’s Champions League elimination on Tuesday, with Benitez buoyed by the reaction of his players.

“After the game – that we won, don’t forget that – everyone was disappointed but we knew 15 days before that this could happen,” says the Spaniard. “I was talking with some players the day after and the reaction was very good, very positive.

“Against Everton we have an opportunity in an important game. A derby is a derby so the passions will be there and it will be easier for me to motivate the players.

“But I must stress that after a bad start to the season we are five points off third place so in one or two games we could be there again.”


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