Aquilani poised for Anfield bow
Liverpool's fans will finally get the chance tomorrow to welcome £20m Alberto Aquilani to Anfield. The Italy international, signed in August, has been recovering from a knee operation since. Now, having also overcome a recent virus problem, the 25-year-old seems certain to make his Barclays Premier League debut for the club against Birmingham City at Anfield.
The fans have waited so long to see the man bought to replace Xabi Alonso, so he can expect a hero's reception. Certainly his appearance in the squad will give Liverpool's worried support something to cheer with fitness doubts surrounding Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. Manager Rafael Benitez looks likely to name Aquilani on the bench, and give him the opportunity of a cameo appearance in the second half.
Benitez said: "It could be the time to let the Anfield fans see Aquilani at last. He has been getting fitter and had a short spell in a reserve game and then a few minutes at Arsenal in the Carling Cup.
"We had him with us in Lyon last week and I did want to bring him on. But Lucas and Javier Mascherano were controlling the game.
"So we waited a bit. We did not want to change they way the side were playing, even though he could have come on," said Benitez. "Then we scored and there was no need to use him. It was just a shame we conceded so late.
"He was almost over the virus and he will certainly be much better on Monday. He has trained well. He does not have match fitness, but the only way to improve that is to play him in games.
"We have more players available now, so maybe he can be on the bench and then come on to change the game if necessary," he said. "He will certainly be involved."
Torres has the better chance of being involved against the Midlanders as he struggles with a groin problem. Gerrard has barely trained for a fortnight, but Benitez was pleased with his involvement in a training session yesterday and his chances of facing Birmingham improved.
Fabio Aurelio, Martin Skrtel and Albert Riera are also likely to return from injuries. Glen Johnson has also improved his after training this weekend, but he and Martin Kelly are still struggling. Benitez at least needs Torres on the pitch for a game Liverpool must win to keep themselves in contention for a top four place.
He said: "We hope to be able to keep going with Fernando. Maybe he can be available for Birmingham. We will see how it goes. It was a risk to play him against Manchester United, but he scored a fantastic goal and everyone was saying what a massive difference he makes.
"He played, and scored, at Fulham and I was criticised by a lot of 'experts' because he was taken off in the second half. They can see that he has a problem, but the same thing happened in Lyon when I took him off. You cannot win. It does not matter what you do, someone will always criticise you. It is too easy.
"Fernando will play if he continues to have less pain than before. Does he need an operation? Nobody really knows, we'll wait and see," aid Benitez. "I have had many players with this problem under my management over the years. They carried on, and sometimes you can play for the whole season with such a problem.
"But I have been surprised at what some critics have said about Torres's involvement. People who have played football for years seem not to understand that the manager has more information. So when they are on TV, they just talk and they do not really know the situation."
And Benitez insisted: "I have enough experience to cope. I understand how our club is treated by the pundits in England, and the things that critics say and why.
"Hopefully people who do understand the game will know how difficult it is to manage a team like ours. I hope they can be more respectful and know we are trying to do our job here in a difficult situation," he said.
"We have a lot of confidence in our team, our squad, our staff and especially our fans to understand what we are doing."