x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A waiting game for Aquilani

Alberto Aquilani remains the most expensive unknown quantity in English football.

And so the mystery continues. Four months after his arrival, six weeks after his debut and a few days after Steven Gerrard admitted Liverpool's title challenge has ended without their biggest summer signing playing a part, Alberto Aquilani remains the most expensive unknown quantity in English football. The £20 million (Dh121m) midfielder was an unused substitute in Liverpool's 0-0 draw at Blackburn on Saturday, just as he had been in the 2-0 win at Everton and the 2-2 draw with Manchester City. His Premier League career amounts to seven minutes of football, his first-team career at Anfield to 22 minutes on the pitch. Liverpool exited the Champions League with Aquilani's contribution limited to a cameo in Hungary that was variously timed at 45 and 54 seconds. Many are baffled. The Italian lacks match fitness, but has not been granted game time to become sharper. If Rafa Benitez is undoubtedly correct in his belief that armchair pundits are in no position to know the exact state of Aquilani's readiness after his recovery from ankle surgery, plenty are perplexed by the ultra- patient approach. Sometimes there has been a logic to his absence. Against Manchester City, two injuries in the first 20 minutes left Benitez with one remaining substitution. At Goodison Park, there was little to gain from disrupting the midfield axis of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva, who were both functioning effectively as destroyers. None of which explains the brevity of Aquilani's involvement against Debrecen a fortnight ago, or why he was confined to a watching brief at Ewood Park. Liverpool were desperate for invention at Blackburn where it rapidly became clear that Gerrard was the sole hope of victory. Yet first David Ngog and then Nabil El Zhar were introduced, while Benitez opted not to make his third change. "This was a difficult, physical place to come, and not the right time to throw him on," the Liverpool manager subsequently said. The first half of the sentence is easier to understand than the second. It is already shaping up to be a five-way battle for the final two positions in next season's Champions League and a goal at Blackburn would have yielded a further two points. The rationale for Aquilani's recruitment was that, unlike Lucas and Mascherano, he possessed the quality that the sold Xabi Alonso oozed. From the brief glimpses of Aquilani, he appears to have the same ability to strike a long-range pass. His time with Roma suggested a midfielder with the quality to score from distance. The evidence, however brief, is that he could add another dimension to the Liverpool midfield and that, presumably, persuaded Benitez to eschew players who would have been fit enough to slot into the side at the start of the season and buy Aquilani instead. But, infuriatingly, a manager who drained his coffers to sign the Italian has appeared reluctant to pick him. So an otherwise insignificant game against Fiorentina tomorrow is given added interest with Benitez's declaration that he expects to select Aquilani. As each game he has missed has added to the intrigue, it is fair to say that all eyes will be on Liverpool's No 4 then, especially with Sunday's showdown with Arsenal beckoning. Because this has been a long time coming. When he arrived in August, Aquilani's absence was described as being for four to eight weeks. Then his comeback was due to be in October's defeat in Sunderland. It finally came 11 days later in the Carling Cup. "We can wait for him," said Benitez when he signed the Italian. But, barring those 22, inconsequential, minutes, the wait goes on.

Once it was just the England team who missed penalties in their regular defeats in shoot-outs. Now, it appears, the malaise has spread around the Premier League. Or, to give credit where it is due, the goalkeepers have made a series of fine stops from 12 yards. First to excel at the weekend was Burnley's Brian Jensen, denying Portsmouth's Aruna Dindane. Then Thomas Sorensen saved for Stoke against Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas. Perhaps the best of all was Shay Given when the Manchester City man thwarted Chelsea's Frank Lampard. But the most dramatic, deep into added time at Goodison Park on Sunday, occurred when Everton's Tim Howard deprived Jermain Defoe and Tottenham of a winner.

Jimmy Bullard's Hull career has been anything but uneventful. Suffering a career-threatening knee injury, the £5m midfielder had to wait almost 10 months before he could make his fulldebut. November brought his first start for the club and Bullard's infectious enthusiasm produced eight points from four games. Even though he was rested for the win against Everton, his catalytic impact - not to mention an iconic goal celebration at Manchester City, mocking his manager Phil Brown's infamous half-time team talk on the pitch - was recognised when he won the Premier League's player of the month award for November. So Bullard's latest knee injury, sustained in an awkward fall during the 3-0 defeat at Aston Villa on Saturday, is a cruel blow for one of football's characters. A lengthy absence could be as damaging for Hull as it would be for Bullard himself. rjolly@thenational.ae