Aquilani finally in from Anfield cold

Benitez denies reports of rift with £20m Italian who is given first Liverpool start
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Finally, after exactly 125 days, Alberto Aquilani will tonight get the chance to prove he can begin to fulfil what have become almost unreal expectations at Liverpool. If he fails, he is likely to exacerbate the bleak Anfield atmosphere as the club tries to come to terms with the fact that a Champions League encounter at their famous arena matters not a jot.

Since he signed for £20m from Roma in August, his knee problem has done nothing to dampen the rumours that the 25-year-old is too injury-prone ever to make a huge impact at the club. He has already missed 22 games this term and the impression that it may already be too little and too late is also hard to shift.

Reports in Italy suggested Aquilani had become frustrated at being forced to wait for his Liverpool debut and insisted he has been back to full fitness for a month, but the club's manager, Rafael Benitez, denied these yesterday and revealed Aquilani would play from the start against Fiorentina.

"I was talking with Alberto this morning and he was surprised too," Benitez said about the rumours of a rift. "Match fitness is something you can only improve on in games and we had the plan for him to play in reserve games but now is the right time.

"It is a Champions League game but we cannot qualify so we can play him from the beginning, he will have minutes and we will see how he reacts."

It is not just Aquilani on trial against Fiorentina, either. Liverpool's ability to comprehend the fact they are now in the Europa League will also bear inspection. The usual spark and excitement that accompany a tie at Anfield have been conspicuous by their absence over the last few days.

Liverpool may well have understood that they were out of the competition after Fiorentina beat Lyons 1-0 towards the end of last month to leave them stranded in third place in Group E, but perhaps now they are only starting to really believe it.

Yet Benitez is not a man to show his vulnerability or upset at that early exit and wants his side to be bold against the Italians this evening. "It is the Champions League and that is always a massive competition," he said. "It is at Anfield, we are playing in front of our fans so I think everybody will have to be ready. Clearly some players will have an opportunity to impress, including Aquilani, so we will see. They will try to do their very best and they will have an extra motivation because they want to impress.

"We know the situation, it is important for us to do well and win the game. We want to keep the momentum and we can then play against Arsenal and we will have more confidence."

Benitez is clearly, and understandably, looking ahead of tonight's encounter and the Premier League game with Arsène Wenger's side at Anfield on Sunday is far more significant for both Liverpool's short-term aspirations of still being in the title race and also their long-term hopes of finishing in the top four.

Manchester City's victory over Chelsea at the weekend legitimised their own opinion that they will push for a Champions League place all season and that should therefore cause great concern to Benitez.

Yet although the Champions League flag can be rolled up after tonight's game at Anfield, Benitez believes it will need to be aired again next year.

"I am convinced we will have Champions League football back here next season," he said. "We have a good team, a good squad and we can win games in a row now. We have not lost in six and kept three consecutive clean sheets, that is positive and an improvement on what was happening a few weeks ago.

"We know what it means to play in the Champions League. The players certainly understand. We have the right experience and I am confident we will finish in the top four, at least, so we must concentrate on our league games to achieve that."

Steven Gerrard should start tonight and Fernando Torres is likely to make a second-half appearance as a substitute as he attempts to come back from a groin complaint, while Leiva Lucas is the man expected to make way for Aquilani as he pairs up with Javier Mascherano in the middle.

Ngog lauds Henry as his hero

As answers go, David Ngog's revelation that Thierry Henry is his footballing idol, was perhaps a tad misguided – particularly when you have just been grilled yourself on the notion of stretching football's rules. Moments after being asked about his dive against Birmingham City last month which earned Liverpool a penalty, Ngog answered from the heart when asked who he admired the most when growing up. "When I was young, I was a big fan of Thierry Henry," Ngog said of the man whose handball helped France to beat Republic of Ireland in their World Cup play-off in Paris last month. "He is French, and is one of the best strikers in the world. He won the World Cup and was an example for me. I've never met him, but that's something I'd like to do. Why not?"

Group E

Results so far: Liverpool 1 Debrecen 0, Lyons 1 Fiorentina 0; Debrecen 0 Lyons 4, Fiorentina 2 Liverpool 0; Liverpool 1 Lyons 2, Debrecen 3 Fiorentina 4; Lyons 1 Liverpool 1, Fiorentina 5 Debrecen 2; Fiorentina 1 Lyons 0, Debrecen 0 Liverpool 1.

Remaining fixtures: Tonight: Liverpool v Fiorentina, Lyons v Debrecen.

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