The player known as ‘Il Principo’ in Rome arrived at Anfield under a weight of expectation in August of last year. Viewed, wrongly, as a replacement for the outgoing Xabi Alonso, Alberto Aquilani’s £20m price-tag and reputation as a highly technical and creative central midfielder led the Kop to expect much from their new signing. Indeed, as the rehabilitation of Aquilani’s long-troublesome ankle dragged on, and Liverpool’s on-field fortunes went from bad to worse, the pressure on the diminutive Italian increased to almost gargantuan proportions.
By the time Aquilani’s debut arrived on the 28th October, the Reds had already lost half of their opening eight league games, and had looked a shadow of the side that had kept pace with fierce rivals Manchester United for the whole of the previous campaign. Aquilani’s first appearance, perhaps fittingly, came in a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal which saw the Reds exit the Carling Cup. Although the Italian did pretty well during his 13-minute debut, his performance was overshadowed by his clubs worsening start to the season.
Patience was thin amongst fans, and the media were as merciless as ever. For a player coming back from injury and adapting to a new league, it was hard going. Still battling for full match fitness, and sporadically shunned by the ever-capricious Benitez, Aquilani struggled to truly impose himself on the pitch as the side consistently underperformed and morale plummeted. Perhaps unfairly, he was labelled a flop by a number of journalists, who viewed him as symbolic of Liverpool’s woeful campaign and decided, lazily, that as he wasn’t an instant improvement upon Xabi Alonso, he was a bonafide failure.
Things did improve for the Italian, even if Liverpool’s season didn’t. In the New Year, as he found match sharpness and some of the initial expectation surrounding his arrival faded, Aquilani produced some excellent performances. During March, against both Portsmouth and Fulham, he showed a sublime passing game, earning man of the match on both occasions and netting in the league for the first time. Similarly, in the Reds’ ill-fated semi-final second-leg tie with Atletico Madrid, Aquilani scored a great volley on the stroke of half-time, and looked every bit the creative force that he had often been at Roma. Again, despite the backdrop being the Reds’ season ending with a whimper, the Italian was named man of the match.
On the whole, despite Liverpool’s torrid campaign, things ended on a personal high for Aquilani last season. Although he didn’t instantly live up to what were unfairly high expectations, ‘Il Principo’ showed flashes of brilliance in his later games. Having now had a summer off, and a full pre-season under his belt, the Italian will be feeling sharper than he ever has at Anfield – indeed, just a few days ago, Liverpool physio Peter Brukner declared that “Alberto’s ankle, which was a problem last year, is now 100% healed. He has been training and has looked very sharp” .
Following his early struggles, the Italian will be more determined than ever to silence his naysayers, and prove that he is still the sublimely talented player that was offered a contract at the age of just 16 by both Arsenal and Chelsea, when he was viewed as one of Italy’s brightest young prospects. Indeed, he will be hoping that under a new manager, without such huge expectations weighing on his shoulders and with the press no longer snapping at his heels, he can live up to both his lofty price tag and the sign that hangs in The Kop for him, reading ‘Alberto Aquilani: A Hero will Rise’.