Can Alberto Aquilani resurrect his Liverpool career?
After last season's failure to qualify for Europe, Kenny Dalglish has gone big and bold with his summer acquisitions in a bid to propel Liverpool back amongst the Premier League elite. But in his squad surrounded by the big moves of 2011 that include Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll is an Italian maestro recently described as 'one missing link' by owner John Henry. Alberto Aquilani joined Liverpool for?17million in August 2009 but after injuries in his first season and a loan spell at Juventus the next, the former Roma star had become a forgotten man at Anfield. Clinging to his place: Alberto Aquilani (centre) will be hoping to resurrect his Liverpool career this season But if the Italy international is the answer to Liverpool's midfield then what is the question? When Rafael Benitez signed the 27-year-old it came days after the club had sold Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, and drew unfair comparisons that he was a replacement for the Spaniard. Benitez already knew they were two different players but was so desperate to force through a move for the attacking midfielder that he signed him injured - he hadn't played for nearly half a year and would not make his debut for a further two months. But Benitez explained his gamble: 'He is a very good player on the ball, and hopefully he can produce the sort of passes that we missed last season [2008/09]. Certainly at home against packed defences when we could only draw important matches.' Since then the Italian has done anything but justify his price tag, but a closer inspection shows just how incredibly unlucky he has been. Still got it: Aquilani (left) has shown flashes of his talent during Liverpool's pre-season tour in Asia Even before he made his first Premier League start on Boxing Day against Wolves, a Liverpool side expected to challenge for the league title were facing a massive struggle to even reach the Champions League. Aquilani was under pressure to make an instant impression. Talent can only get you so far. A combination of no pre-season training, a move to a faster league, illness and adapting to a side whose confidence was shot to bits was far from ideal. His performances initially were good but no more than that. But as he grew into the team more, his form and self-belief gradually increased. Benitez recognised the slow upward curve last February: 'Aquilani is doing well and he is improving. I remember Alonso's first year with us. He was injured as well but he finished the season well, so hopefully that will be the same with Alberto. 'He has to improve his fitness but that is a question of time. Alberto is improving and he will be better for us.' Crowded: Aquilani will face competition from Jordan Henderson (left) and Charlie Adam in Liverpool's midfield The potential was there and his season ended on a strong footing, but then another setback.Benitez left the club and Roy Hodgson came in looking to clear the deadwood. Despite looking like he was starting to settle, Aquilani was given two games against Rabotnicki in a Europa League qualifier before Hodgson decided that he was surplus to requirements and farmed him off on loan to Juventus. Going the other way was Christian Poulsen and as the Dane struggled desperately at Anfield, Aquilani set about resurrecting his career at the Old Lady. Once again he was in a failing side as the Bianconeri finished seventh and out of a European spot. But crucially for Aquilani he managed to get games under his belt and finished the season with 37 appearances for club and country - even if his form was solid rather than spectacular. Given his injury woes from previous seasons it was a massive boost and proof he wasn't just an Italian Darren Anderton. Before he arrived on Merseyside his fitness was a big talking point. In his last three campaigns at Roma he picked up injuries left, right and centre and it begged the question of how he actually passed his Liverpool medical. Rising star: Aquilani (left) shot to prominence at Roma but also struggled with injury at the Serie A side The Turin side were interested in making the deal permanent but baulked at the Reds' asking price of an estimated ?16m - much to Aquilani's disappointment who was happy to return to his homeland for good. His Anfield career still looked dead in the water but manager Kenny Dalglish hinted at a U-turn by praising his ability back in April. Dalglish stated: 'He's a quality player. He got off to a bad start here with his injuries and never really got going after missing pre-season. 'He went out on loan and has done very well over there [Juventus]. If he was to come back here, for me that would be like a new face coming in.' So Aquilani may still have a future but it is mental torture trying to find a place for him in the centre of the park. A wingman he is not, and with Steven Gerrard certain for a starting role in the middle, it leaves one space to play alongside him - or two if Dalglish goes 4-5-1. Loan star: Aquilani spent season at Juventus And this is where the dogfight begins. Henderson and Adam have not signed up to warm the bench while Raul Meireles, Dirk Kuyt, Lucas, Maxi Rodriguez and Joe Cole will all feel they can play an integral part in the midfield. Also eyeing a first-team place are youngsters Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey. It is one big selection headache. Aquilani is already under his third Liverpool boss and has featured so little he would get lost on an Anfield stadium tour. Many Reds fans feel a touch of sympathy for the man they dub 'Aquaman' and they would love to see the Italian being given a run in the first-team. Green shoots come from Henry's quotes and his impressive pre-season form, admittedly against far inferior opposition. In Malaysia, Aquilani has finally started to show his strengths which include a great ability to read the game along with his intelligent passing. He may seem lightweight for the Premier League and you can normally count his goals per season on one hand but those creases can be ironed out - Luka Modric at Spurs is a fine example. But if Aquilani found life tough under Benitez and Hodgson, it's not going to be easier under Dalglish.Even if he does win the battle to claim a starting place, any slight injury he is likely to pick up could see him lose it straight away and never get it back. It's not too late for Aquilani to show his worth but he is on his last chance on Merseyside. Not only does he have to deliver on undeniable talent but he has to do the hard bit and actually stay fit. CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP FOR OUR FREE FANTASY FOOTBALL GAMEAquilani's Ace! Liverpool owner Henry hails returning midfielder as 'missing link' Former Hammer Behrami urges Liverpool misfit Aquilani to join him at FiorentinaAll the latest Liverpool news, features and opinion
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