After all the injury problems, criticism and lack of game time, Alberto Aquilani finally showed what he was capable of last night. It was not only the goal which was taken so impressively, but nearly every part of his game was on song; he even won a 50/50 tackle during the second half! Since moving from Roma last summer, Aquilani has had problem after problem which have hampered him settling in to his new life in England. First he recovered later than expected from a long term ankle injury, then he picked frequent knocks and viruses prompting fears he was injury prone, and then there were questions as to whether Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez had bought the right player.
The last point is crucial here in why it has taken so long since his recovery from injury for Aquilani to establish himself in the first team. Bought as a replacement for Xabi Alonso, the Italian midfielder initially slotted in alongside Javier Mascherano in the centre of midfield when chosen to start by Rafa. As we all know, Rafa likes his two holding midfield players and Alonso perfectly fitted the bill; for as well as being disciplined in the defensive midfield, intercepting passes, he could also use his fantastic long range passing abilities to set up attacks and give both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres the ammunition they needed to threaten the opposition penalty area.
Now, Aquilani can fulfil the attacking elements of Alonso’s play, but his discipline in central midfield was lacking and it restricted his play and freedom of movement. He is not a natural defender and you would sometime see him dawdle around the centre of midfield rather than picking up the player with the ball or sticking to the role the manager had assigned to him. You will not see the best of him in that position and consequently some average displays came from the 25 year old.
Something had to change, and Benitez decided to do something different in the game against Burnley last Sunday. He picked him in a more offensive position behind the striker and moved Steven Gerrard back into central midfield. The move worked as Aquilani made three assists during the match. It was change of fortunes that was replicated last night as Aquilani seemed to have much more freedom to move and “play as he sees it” as Graham Taylor said on Five’s commentary. The consequence being was that we saw a completely different player. On top of his fantastically taken goal, first time with his right foot, he controlled and offloaded the ball fantastically for the majority of the match, and pinged the ball left and right quickly to set up quick counter attacks.
The freedom of play let Aquilani off the leash and you could see he wanted the ball all the time. The match against Atletico Madrid, which although ended in a defeat over two legs, may well have been the start of something really special for Aquilani. It was a step up on recent performances from the Italian and we all hope he continues to improve in the last two games of the season, setting up a good pre-season, and hopefully a barn-storming start to the next campaign for the midfielder. The £20million signing may be coming good at last.