Hodgson tips Aquilani to bounce back

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The Independent Football

Liverpool head to Macedonia to start their Europa League campaign against Rabotnicki on Thursday. The last time the Anfield club had to stoop so low was qualifying for the Champions' League in 2005 with matches against TNS, Kaunas and CSKA Sofia but even those games were played amidst the warm glow of having just won the competition in Istanbul.

This time they are only in Europe because FA Cup finalists Portsmouth were not allowed in, although there is little doubt that this week's game in Skopje is something that Roy Hodgson could do without.

The majority of his World Cup players only returned to Melwood last week, leaving Hodgson with an insight into the lack of depth ahead of his first competitive match.

It could be claimed that it is a positive that Liverpool had so many men in South Africa, and the manager knows he will not be judged on how he fares in a competition that saw him reach last season's final with Fulham.

With a dozen players likely to be excluded and Yossi Benayoun and Albert Riera gone, Daniel Ayala, 19, with two first-team starts, could be Hodgson's most experienced defender.

Lucas, Diego Cavalieri and David Ngog will also be involved, along with another to sit out the World Cup, midfielder Alberto Aquilani, who already seems like the forgotten man of Anfield just a year after his £20 million arrival from Roma.

It says much for the injury-plagued Italian's lack of impact in his first campaign that he has still only made seven more Premier League starts than Ayala but Hodgson has little choice but to hope Aquilani, 26, comes good. "What has been the major disappointment is that he arrived here with an injury that took an awfully long time to clear up," Hodgson said. "It was only towards the end of the season when he started to show anything like the kind of form you would have expected, and that frustrated him.

"He has got to use this pre-season to put all those disappointments behind him and get his confidence up but what I have seen during the last three weeks has been encouraging. Every day he is working hard to improve his fitness. He wants to get back to the levels he was showing before he came here and that is a positive."