Benitez's worst recruit will always be a symbol of Liverpool's lost year

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The Independent Online

A manager's worst signings always tell you something about his downfall.

The arrival of the frankly thuggish shape of Julian Dicks at Anfield said everything about the coarsening of Liverpool under Graeme Souness. Gérard Houllier's deadly sin was vanity combined with a desire to be too clever. He congratulated himself on signing Salif Diao and El-Hadji Diouf before the end of the 2002 World Cup, in which they shone for Senegal. "Can you imagine how expensive they would be now?" he beamed. Jamie Carragher thought them the worst footballers he had ever played with.

Alberto Aquilani symbolised what went wrong at the fag end of Rafael Benitez's regime – a desire to do things on the cheap. Shortly after Aquilani arrived, injured, from Roma, Benitez admitted that, had he been fit, the player would have cost between £25m and £30m. However, because he came to Anfield with an ankle injury, he was "a bit cheaper".

He was £12m cheaper than the £30m Real Madrid had just paid for Xabi Alonso, who had been one of the cornerstones of Liverpool under Benitez and whose exit upset Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

"We have bought Aquilani for five years, not five matches," said Benitez. "His signing is not a gamble." But Aquilani started more than five matches but not many more. He began 13 games, the majority of which Liverpool won, and he boasts the strange distinction of providing more assists per minute on the pitch than any other player in Europe.

However, he was regarded in Rome as something of a crystal vase. The supporters on the Curva Sud called him "Swarovski" because Aquilani's elegant frame was always liable to shatter. He missed swathes of each of his last three seasons at Roma because of injury. He was wonderfully talented, but he most definitely was a gamble.

Ankle injuries are notoriously hard to assess. Initially, Aquilani was out for a month and as progress became ever slower, the manager appeared to suggest that the club's medical staff had got it badly wrong. He made his debut in December, in Liverpool's final match of a miserable Champions League campaign, 124 days after he arrived.

But Aquilani was quick to become symbolic of a season of drift and despair. His fourth start was in the FA Cup at home to Reading. That, too, was lost. As his season fell apart, Benitez retreated into caution. When asked why he did not start Aquilani, he argued that some games might be "too physical" for him. But Blackburn and Bolton were not going to fade away.

But, more tellingly, Benitez said that if he risked a man who was not match-fit he increased his odds of losing. And as the losses piled up he needed a win more and more – a Catch-22 that condemned Rome's shattered crystal to an uneasy exile.

Other big-money flops

*Robinho

Signed by Manchester City for £32.5m from Real Madrid in August 2008 amid great fanfare but struggled to settle.

*Andrei Shevchenko

Former European Player of the year cost Chelsea £30m from Milan in May 2006 yet hit just 22 goals in three years.

*Juan Sebastian Veron

Creative Argentine midfielder joined Manchester United for £28.1m from Lazio in 2001 but lasted just two years.

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