Hopes high as Aquilani makes bow

Liverpool's £20m Italian to face Arsenal tonight after finally overcoming injury
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The Independent Football

He may have dodged the No 7 shirt but as he prepares for his long-awaited Liverpool debut this evening, Alberto Aquilani will be in little doubt about what is expected from him.

For a team that was so dominant in English football for so long, the continued absence of a league title means the clamour that greets each final piece of the jigsaw is always likely to be magnified but the success or failure of Aquilani, who because of ankle problems has not played since joining Liverpool from Roma in a £20m deal that followed Xabi Alonso's departure for Real Madrid, could define Rafael Benitez's era at Anfield.

Liverpool feel that the Italian midfielder, who has not played more than 25 games in any of the past five seasons and is still talked about as a player of potential in his homeland despite his age, has finally overcome the injury problems that have dogged his career. Aquilani, 25, has been critical of the medical treatment he received throughout his spell at his former club.

A 15-minute outing for the reserves last week, which involved only a couple of touches of the ball, was safely negotiated and now Benitez feels Aquilani, who interested both Arsenal and Chelsea earlier in his career, is ready for his first taste of first-team football and he could make an appearance from the bench in the Carling Cup at Arsenal this evening.

"I will be very happy when I make my debut. This is my job, it's what I am here to do, and I am looking forward to it," Aquilani said. "It has been difficult, but now I want to build up my confidence and I hope to bring out the best of my game here."

But it is not only a lack of match fitness that means it would be harsh to judge Aquilani on his display tonight as the changes that Benitez makes, with Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres likely to be rested, mean we will have to wait to see where he fits in.

In Torres' first season in England, Benitez hit on a 4-2-3-1 formation that brought the best out of his two star players, finally giving the team some width, relieving Gerrard of defensive responsibility, with Alonso and Javier Mascherano sitting deep, and providing Torres with plenty of support.

That meant Liverpool's last No 7, Robbie Keane, was never likely to prove a success, and it is the flexibility of Benitez's midfield that will determine how effective Aquilani can be. While Alonso's best work was from deep, spraying long diagonal balls and sweeping up, Benitez feels that Aquilani is better than the Spaniard at playing short killer passes in and around the area for the likes of Torres.

Benitez is also confident that Aquilani, who is also renowned for his long-range shooting, can be accommodated into his preferred formation, with Mascherano encouraged to destroy and feed more than ever, with the Italian 10 yards further forward.

"We can see in every training session that he has quality, game intelligence and good movements," Benitez said. "We talk about using Gerrard deeper sometimes, but maybe in Aquilani we have a player who can play there and pass the ball really well in the final third."

Arsenal youngster Jack Wilshere will miss the game due to an ankle problem but Samir Nasri and Lukasz Fabianski will make their first appearances of the season.