Benitez fires warning to Aquilani

Liverpool manager says his injured Italian midfielder 'cannot manage his pain'
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The Independent Football

The French have a saying that the absent are always wrong and, as the smoke from the flares cleared at the Estadio da Luz on Thursday, attention began to focus on three of Rafael Benitez's big signings who should have been on the pitch at the end of a bitter, controversial if not disastrous night.

As he has been for most of his time on Merseyside, Alberto Aquilani was unfit, having injured his ankle in training before the Liverpool squad flew to Lisbon. As he analysed a 2-1 Europa League defeat to Benfica, triggered by Ryan Babel's dismissal, Benitez said there were some players who had the mental strength to play through injuries. Aquilani, he suggested, was not one of them.

"He was complaining of a pain in his ankle and said he couldn't train," said the Liverpool manager as he prepared for the return flight to Merseyside. "We will have a talk with the doctors when we get back to see what is going on because we don't know. It is the same ankle he did before. Some players can manage with the pain and some when they have pain cannot. It depends on each individual."

Aquilani, whom Benitez has protected against some of the more nakedly aggressive Premier League teams, might have relished playing against a free-flowing Benfica side who might yet regret not punishing Liverpool with nothing more than two controversially awarded penalties.

At his best, as he was when helping to ensure Spain qualified for the World Cup without dropping a point, Albert Riera would have been an automatic selection for this game. However, comments before Liverpool's previous Europa League trip to Lille that the club was "a sinking ship" ensured he would play no part in this one. Now that his transfer to Spartak Moscow, where he could expect to double his Liverpool salary, has run into the ground, his comments that "Liverpool are one of the best clubs in the world" cut little ice with his manager.

"We still have some time before the end of the Russian transfer window so we will see," Benitez said. "I did not see his latest comments but for me when he was talking [about Liverpool being a sinking ship] on the day before a massive game against Lille, was disappointing. It was especially so when he was saying things that were not true. I was really surprised."

Benitez would not elaborate but the winger's statement that Benitez was rarely seen on the training pitches at Melwood would have caused a quizzical eyebrow to be raised from a man who likes to take total control of his team's preparations. Riera also accused Benitez of ignoring him, although the pair are believed to have met in the manager's office to discuss his situation four times.

Then there was Babel, whose foolishness in trying to shut up the Benfica captain, Luisao, by putting his hand over the Brazilian's mouth after he had upended Fernando Torres, was met by a red card from the Swedish referee, Jonas Eriksson, who frequently lost control of proceedings.

Liverpool, forced to play with 10 men for an hour against possibly the best team left in the Europa League, lost control of the game but not enough to rule out a comeback at Anfield on Thursday.

"Luisao had made an awful foul and all I wanted to do was back up Fernando," Babel reflected. "A red card was too harsh maybe but it was a stupid, silly thing for me to touch him on the face. He came very loud and very close and I just tried to back him off with my hand to say: 'Don't come too close'. But it was a mistake and it won't happen again."