RAFAEL Benitez has given Alberto Aquilani his full backing despite the midfield player's struggle to nail down a regular starting place in the Liverpool side.
Aquilani's first year in English football has been blighted by injury to such an extent that, almost eight months after a £17m move from Roma, his agent is willing to concede that it could be next season before Liverpool see the best of the Italy international.
Benitez maintains that he has not lost faith in Aquilani and insists that the 25-year-old understands the situation, in which Liverpool's search for peak form and their desperate need to secure a top-four place mean that the team cannot afford to carry a player who is facing a personal quest for improvement.
The Liverpool manager's strategy means that Aquilani is again likely to be denied a start in tonight's Premier League match away to Wigan Athletic.
"When you have been injured for a while, it's not easy for a player," Benitez said. "Then, when you are available and the team isn't doing well, it makes it even more difficult. You have to decide if you can afford to give him two or three games when you know he's maybe not at the level he could be, so you could end up losing some of them.
"Alberto isn't stupid, he knows the priority now has to be the team and what's best for that.
"All he can do is keep training and make sure he is ready when we need him. But the most important thing we have to think of is the team, not one player." Benitez was criticised for not bringing Aquilani off the substitutes' bench during a dour goalless draw away to Wolverhampton Wanderers in January.
Having billed him as "a player who can make a difference in the final third" upon his arrival, there was a degree of surprise that he had not been afforded a cameo on a night when Liverpool desperately needed some creativity.
The Liverpool manager insists that his decision had nothing to do with an icy pitch at Molineux -- the playing surface at the DW Stadium will not be an issue tonight, having been relaid recently -- and has indicated that his reluctance to give Aquilani more playing time is born only of a desire to protect him after a seven-month spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury.
"When I didn't play him at Wolves, it wasn't to do with the state of their pitch, it was because of the kind of game and because others were available, which meant we could manage in a different way," Benitez said.
"So whether I play him at Wigan or not isn't a decision that will be determined by the pitch condition.
"We have had a conversation about things and he knows the situation. Alberto is a very good professional, who was a big name in Italy and wants to show his quality here."
The predicament his client is in has prompted the player's agent, Franco Zavaglia, to suggest that only with time will Aquilani show his best.
"Alberto made a decision of a lifetime when he joined Liverpool," Zavaglia said. "He is fine at Liverpool and next year will be the most important for him."
For the time being, the likelihood is that Aquilani's involvement with the Merseyside club will continue to be as an occasionally used substitute.
Benitez also backed Wigan counterpart Roberto Martinez's approach to the Latics' relegation battle. Wigan are mired in a struggle at the foot of the table but their boss is determined his side should play their way out of trouble.
After the recent debate about over-physical styles -- in which Benitez criticised Blackburn and Arsene Wenger attacked Stoke -- the Liverpool manager thinks his compatriot has struck the right balance.
"Martinez is doing a good job. They try to play football but they have strong players too so we have to respect them," he said. "They are a little bit inconsistent. They did well against Chelsea (winning at home) and after that they lost against Tottenham (9-1) in the way they did.
"They are more or less a mix of styles. They have some physical, strong players but they also like to play with the ball on the floor.
"In football you have to win and playing nice football is not always possible. So to find balance is the key."
WIGAN v LIVERPOOL
LIVE ESPN (8.0)