Aquilani gets his chance for Liverpool
Finally after exactly 125 days, Alberto Aquilani will tonight get the chance to prove he can begin to fulfil what has become an almost unreal level of expectation at Liverpool.
If he fails, he is likely to exacerbate the ever bleaker atmosphere at Anfield as the club tries to come to terms with the fact that a Champions League encounter at their famous arena matters not a jot.
Since signing for £20m from Roma in August, a knee problem has done nothing to dampen the rumours that the 25-year-old is too injury prone to ever make a huge impact at the club and having already missed 22 games this term, the impression that it may already be too little and too late is also hard to shift.
Reports in Italy suggested Aquilani has become frustrated at being forced to wait for his debut and insisted he has been back to full fitness for a month but manager Rafa Benitez denied those whispers yesterday and revealed he will play from the start, alongside Steven Gerrard, who is also returning from injury.
The time for speculation is over. Aquilani's future is now most definitely in his own hands and at his own feet.
“I was talking with Alberto this morning and he was surprised too,” Benitez said about the rumours of a rift. “Match fitness is
something you can only improve on in games and we had the plan for him to play in reserve games but now is the right time.
“It is a Champions League game but we cannot qualify so we can play him from the beginning, he will have minutes and we will see how he reacts.”
It is not just Aquilani on trial against Fiorentina either. Liverpool Football Club's entire ability to comprehend the fact they are now in the Europa League will also bear inspection.
The usual spark and excitement that accompanies a tie at Anfield has been conspicuous by its absence over the last few days and the club's media briefing yesterday resembled the Marie Celeste in comparison to other Champions League fixtures in previous seasons.
Liverpool may well have understood that they were out of the competition after Fiorentina beat Lyon towards the end of November to leave them stranded in Group E — but perhaps now they are only starting to really believe it.
Yet Benitez is not a man to show his vulnerability or upset at that early exit and wants his side to bold against the Italian side this evening.
“It is the Champions League and that is always a massive com
petition,” he said. “It is at Anfield, we are playing in front of our fans so I think everybody will have to be ready. Clearly some players will have an opportunity to impress, including Aquilani, so we will see — they will try to do their very best and they will have an extra motivation because they want to impress.
“We know the situation, it is important for us to do well and win the game. We want to keep the momentum and we can then play against Arsenal we will have more confidence.”
Benitez is clearly, and understandably, looking ahead of tonight's encounter and the match with Arsene Wenger's side on Sunday is far more significant for both Liverpool's short-term aspirations of still being in the title race and also their long-term hopes of finishing in the top four.
Manchester City's victory over Chelsea at the weekend legitimised their own opinion that they will push for a Champions League place all season and that should therefore cause great concern to Benitez.
Yet although the Champions League flag can be rolled up after tonight's game and be allowed to gather dust, Benitez is convinced It Will need to be aired again next year.
“I am convinced we will have Champions League football back here next season,” he said. “We have a good team, a good squad and we can win games in a row now. We have not lost in six and kept three consecutive clean sheets, that is positive and an improvement on what was happening a few weeks ago. We know what it means to play in the Champions League. The players certainly understand. We have the right experience and I am confident we will finish in the top four, at least, so we must concentrate on our league games to achieve that.
Fernando Torres is also likely to make a second half appearance as a substitute as he continues to recover from groin complaint while Leiva Lucas is the man to make way for Aquilani as he pairs up with Javier Mascherano in the middle.