By Jamie Ward
Despite it being a regular occurrence last season, it was still surprising for a number of Liverpool fans to see Alberto Aquilani sit out a disappointingly narrow 1-0 victory over Turkish side Trabzonspor.
The opposing keeper did well to keep out a poor second half spot kick from Joe Cole and a clear cut Milan Jovanovic chance, ensuring Liverpool take a slender lead to the laborious return fixture in Turkey next week. But with the omittance from the European qualifier, coupled with recent comments about Aquilani from Roy Hodgson, it now seems question marks have been raised over the Italian’s immediate and possible long term future with the club.
“We are considering possibly loaning him to an Italian club, but nothing is sure about that yet so I don’t have anything definite to report.”
After an ankle injury that kept the 26-year-old sidelined far longer than Rafael Benitez had been independently informed prior to his transfer, as well as a succession of viruses during the acclimatization to his new country, this coming season was considered by many to be Aquilani’s chance to finally make a name for himself and settle in to the first team.
However, Roy Hodgson has not featured Aquilani in any competitive games so far and last night chose instead to play the much-improved Lucas Leiva alongside new signing Christian Poulsen in front of the back four, despite the holding midfielder only playing 45 minutes so far this season for Juventus. And the lack of match sharpness was definitely evident during Liverpool’s Europa League victory as the 30-year-old Dane looked way off pace in the first half and struggled to find a teammate on more than one occasion.
With three European victories in his first three European games, and clearly unlucky not to get all three points against Arsenal in the opening league fixture; so far Roy Hodgson is definitely showing positive signs of a respectable enough tenure, and is rightly still enjoying his honeymoon period with the club.
However, the 63-year-old Englishman has now left a ?20 million player with no apparent injuries out of the side on three out of three occasions, utilised two holding midfielders at Anfield to seemingly inferior European opposition, not to mention the substitution of confidence player Ryan Babel at the interval despite having just scored moments before the half time whistle.
Not that any of this is a problem to me, but with out doubt this was something the media vultures and some sections of Anfield would have furiously bemoaned if the previous manager were still at the helm. Whether this hypocritical stance from the commentators and supporters will ensure for the remainder of Hodgson’s time on Merseyside will certainly remain to be seen.
Having so far successfully won over the majority of fans, players, journalists, and Benitez-baiters, the next headache for Roy Hodgson is the future of both Javier Mascherano and Alberto Aquilani.
The Argentine captain expressed his desire at the end of last season to ply his trade in a country that isn’t England, opening the door for a Spanish or Italian club to come in with an amount worthy of Mascherano’s undoubted ability. But with no offers on the table as yet and just 11 days remaining in the current transfer window, Hodgson would be seriously hindered if a late bid is tabled, stating he desperately wants to keep the player but would not stand in the way if decent money were offered.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the Argentine will play out his current position. Will he prove his commitment to the future success of Liverpool by signing an extension before he leaves next year, guaranteeing a healthy return to strengthen the squad? Or will he ensure his transfer away from Anfield by refusing to sign a new contract, massively bringing his transfer fee down and making it easier for a big European club to come in for him next season?
It’s a problem the club had to deal with in 2004 when Michael Owen requested a transfer away from Anfield with one year left on his contract, resulting in a pitiful ?8million for a world class player.
With such little headroom left for negotiations, and the recent activity from the Liverpool board to withhold transfer profits, it will be difficult to find a suitable replacement of similar ability in time. If, of course, one has not been lined up already.
It would also be worrying for many if Christian Poulsen is a direct replacement for Mascherano, as this would considerably reduce the quality of Liverpool’s midfield and increase the average age in that department. But with Lucas more than proving his potential as a holding midfielder with attacking intent and Steven Gerrard apparently being moved back in the centre of the park; this should leave Poulsen as cover for the position instead of being a regular first team player.
Although, moving Gerrard from behind Fernando Torres back in to the Xabi Alonso role worryingly means Liverpool break up one of the most prolific partnerships in the league.
Joe Cole has so far been used by Hodgson in the position occupied so well by Gerrard for the last couple of seasons, but as yet in his career, Cole is not a guarantee to provide a goal return or assist rate equal to his new captain in that role. However, Cole must be afforded the season to settle before a proper judgement can be made on whether he can support Torres and the team as successfully.
Despite a first XI that rivalled any in Europe, one of the biggest problems for the club last year was an obvious lack of strength in squad depth, highlighted largely thanks to injuries – something not helped by a Liverpool board who boldly proclaimed so much but ended up stealing profit from player sales to repay debts, using the transfer budget to pay for contract negotiations instead of strengthening the squad, and removing transfer funds half way though the window.
Funds that had already been given to the manager to bolster the squad and purchase another quality striker to provide back-up for Fernando Torres.
If Liverpool are as unlucky with injuries this season, then Hodgson will need someone of similar quality and vision to cover if Joe Cole is out for a number of games.
Thanks to Benitez, there is of course the option of playing Steven Gerrard behind Torres again, but if Mascherano is on his way as many have been predicting so adamantly, thenn Liverpool’s quality will again be reduced in midfield.
The obvious choice of cover in either the attacking or holding midfield position for many would be Alberto Aquilani, who towards the end of the previous campaign showed glimpses of why Benitez paid so well and was so willing to wait for his services.
Now Yossi Benayoun has jumped ship to Chelsea, the Italian is one of the few faces at the club who has the technical ability and vision of passing that can unlock a stubborn Premier League defence. Combined with recent OPTA statistics that placed Aquilani as the best assist-to-minutes-played ratio in all of the top five European leagues last season; Our manager’s recent comments about loaning him out should be a massive worry for Liverpool supporters.
Hodgson did say he hopes Aquilani will return to the club next year and prove the quality he knows he has, but if the Italian goes back to his homeland on loan, whether Mascherano leaves for another club or not, Liverpool will be losing a quality player this season that would provide ample security if key first team members are out for a long period of time or rotation is needed.
If he does happen to return next season, the attacking midfielder will once again need to get up to speed with the English style. Aquilani has already had a year training and acclimatising to both the club and country, so now he is fit and ready to play (with Liverpool arguably now having one of the best medical teams in the world installed by Benitez before he departed), combined with the uncertainty surrounding the future of Mascherano, it would appear to be a massive waste of time to send him back to Italy.
What ever happens over the coming days, the problems now facing crucial players in the first team, as well as the on going pantomime currently being played out in the boardroom by Hicks and Gillette’s puppets; this is once again a critical period for Liverpool Football Club.
Roy Hodgson deserves to be backed every step of the way, but we can only hope that he is the right man to steer us through another turbulent time.