The new banner that hung between the corner of the Kop and the Centenary Stand at the Manchester United game last weekend caught the eye of all who were there. ‘A hero will rise’, it proclaimed – the tagline from the hit 2000 film Gladiator. It depicted a Roman soldier complete in full armour and ready for battle, except instead of Russell Crowe, the figure glaring out onto the Anfield pitch with his gameface on was Alberto Aquilani.
Reds supporters have faced what seemed like an interminable wait to see their new £17m Italian international midfielder in first team action – a wait that was finally ended with an eye-catching late cameo appearance in the Carling Cup loss at Arsenal. Having finally recovered from the summer ankle operation that he arrived in England still convalescing from, he was calm and assured on the ball, and showed a willingness to try and dictate play as the Reds went searching for an equalising goal. An overhead kick could have forced a last minute penalty, while anyone still mourning the summer departure of Xabi Alonso would have been delighted with one particular raking cross-field pass that set the surprisingly mobile ‘man of glass’ Philipp Degen free down the right flank.
Liverpool’s patchy form has seen many looking to Aquilani as the saviour of their campaign, a huge burden to place upon a 25-year-old in his first season in English football, but the Italian’s presence will certainly add a creativity and goal threat that Lucas and Javier Mascherano – for all of their numerous qualities, many of which were on display at the weekend – simply don’t have. The hope that Aquilani – long regarded as one of the finest talents in Serie A before his summer move – can form a dynamic attacking trio with Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres is a real and mouth-watering one, and the anticipation of the difference he can make to the Reds’ style of play is tangible. Big expectations then, but the man himself is used to them. As one of Rome’s favourite sons, ‘Il Principino’ – ‘the little prince’ – was regarded as one of the heartbeats of the side along with Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti, and is well used to the pressures that go with representing the fanatical supporters of a huge club in a football-mad city. There will remain concerns about his injury record, but he’s fit right now so what’s the problem? Aquilani will need to be introduced into first team action slowly – don’t expect him to start at Fulham on Saturday – but will surely have an increasing impact on Liverpool in the weeks and months to come.
The exit from the Carling Cup has deprived him of more chances to ease into English football, but it is one of just a few regrets on a night of entertaining football at the Emirates Stadium. It is amazing how people will believe things if you repeat them often enough, and so it is that Liverpool apparently lost to a team of ‘Arsenal’s kids’ in the fourth round. ‘Youngsters’ Eduardo, Nicklas Bendtner, Mikael Silvestre, Philippe Senderos and Samir Nasri – all internationals – were presumably just finishing their homework in time for the 19:45 kick off. Even the man of the match, the brilliant Aaron Ramsey – admittedly only just old enough to drink his well deserved champagne – cost £5m, more than all but three of the Reds’ starting line-up. They even played ‘The Kids Are Alright’ at the full-time whistle.
The defeat continues Rafa Benitez’s odd record of having lost to a London club in the League Cup in each of his six seasons in England (Arsenal twice, Chelsea twice, Tottenham and Crystal Palace), but plus points can be found in the presence of Aquilani, Emiliano Insua’s stunning first-ever Liverpool goal and the performances of some of the players on the fringes of Benitez’s plans such as Degen, Andriy Voronin and David Ngog – whose goal against Manchester United seems to have instilled a new confidence and belief. The flicks, tricks and stepovers are a welcome addition to a player who could well be on a rapid rise.
London is calling again for Liverpool at the weekend, as Roy Hodgson’s impressive Fulham side await in what promises to be a difficult challenge at Craven Cottage. Yossi Benayoun’s stoppage-time winner there in April was one of the defining moments of the Reds’ title challenge last season, and a similar result this time around will let the clubs above Liverpool know that Benitez’ men are firmly back on course. Aquilani will probably feature from the bench, a week after his former club visited west London. A hero will rise? It’s time for the Gladiator to enter Premier League battle.