Thursday 14 December 2017

Aquilani joins list of game's biggest letdowns

Tim Rich

A manager's worst signings always tell you something about his downfall.

The arrival of the frankly thuggish shape of Julian Dicks at Anfield said everything about the fatal coarsening of Liverpool under Graeme Souness. Gerard Houllier's deadly sin was vanity combined with a desire to be too clever. He congratulated himself on signing Salif Diao and El-Hadji Diouf before the end of the 2002 World Cup, in which they shone for Senegal.

"Can you imagine how expensive they would be now?" he beamed. Jamie Carragher thought them the worst footballers he had ever played with.

Alberto Aquilani symbolised what went wrong at the fag end of Rafael Benitez's regime -- a desire to do things on the cheap.

Shortly after Aquilani arrived, injured, from Roma, Benitez admitted that, had he been fit, the player they called 'The Little Prince' at the Olympic Stadium would have cost between £25m and £30m.

However, because he came to Anfield with an ankle injury, he was "a bit cheaper". He was £12m cheaper than the £30m Real Madrid had just paid for Xabi Alonso, who had been one of the cornerstones of Liverpool under Benitez and whose exit upset Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

The manager sounded like a shopper congratulating himself for buying a crystal vase reduced because of a faint crack. "We will have to wait a month for him to be fit," Benitez said. "But we have bought a player for five years not five matches. His signing is not a gamble."

Aquilani started more than five matches but not many more. He began 13 games, the majority of which Liverpool won and he boasts the strange distinction of providing more assists per minute on the pitch than any other player in Europe.

Occasionally, as in the 4-1 rout of an already doomed Portsmouth and in the Europa League semi-final with Atletico Madrid, he shone. However, he was regarded in Rome as something of a crystal vase. The supporters on the Curva Sud called him 'Swarovski' because Aquilani's elegant frame was always liable to shatter. He missed swathes of each of his last three seasons at Roma because of injury. He was wonderfully talented, as his beautifully directed drive to seal the Rome derby with Lazio proved.

He had star quality and could be seen on the arm of the actress Michela Quattrociocche, star of 'Excuse Me, I Think I Love You'. But he most definitely was a gamble. Ankle injuries are notoriously hard to assess. Every Friday at Carrington, Alex Ferguson would give an increasingly pessimistic prognosis of a similar but straightforward-sounding injury to Gary Neville. It cost the United captain a season and a half.

So it was with Benitez at Liverpool's training headquarters at Melwood. Initially, Aquilani was out for a month and as progress became ever slower, the manager appeared to suggest that the club's medical staff had got it badly wrong.

Eventually, he made his debut in December, in Liverpool's final match of a miserable Champions League campaign, 124 days after he arrived.

He was not a like-for-like replacement for Alonso but on the surface it seemed Benitez had rid Liverpool of one of their finest midfielders and brought in a footballer who was only available once the club had been knocked out of the Champions League and the Carling Cup and were effectively out of the Premier League title race.

It seemed symbolic of a season of drift and despair. Aquilani's fourth start was in the FA Cup at home to Reading. That, too, was lost. As his season fell apart, Benitez retreated into caution. When asked why he did not start Aquilani, he argued that some games might be "too physical" for him, something he ought to have considered before parting with £18m.

But, more tellingly, Benitez said that if he risked a man who was not match-fit he increased his odds of losing. And as the losses piled up he needed a win more and more -- a Catch-22 that condemned Rome's Little Prince to an uneasy exile.

Big-money flops


Signed by Manchester City for £32.5m from Real Madrid in August 2008 amid great fanfare but struggled to settle.

Andrei Shevchenko

Former European Player of the Year cost Chelsea £30m from Milan in May 2006 yet hit just 22 goals in three years.

Juan Sebastian Veron

Creative Argentine midfielder joined Manchester United for £28.1m from Lazio in 2001 but lasted just two years. (© Independent News Service))

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