In football, as in life, there are moments when you just know things could have been so different. So much better. For Alberto Aquilani one such moment was a game that took place a little over 10 years ago. It was going one way but then swung the other and, as it did, his hopes of making it at Liverpool crumbled into dust.
That, perhaps, is an over-simplification of what took place at Anfield on 29 April 2010. Equally, there is no escaping the feeling that there is a link; that failure for Liverpool led to failure for Aquilani. The Italian is certainly in no doubt about that. As he puts it: “This is the life of a footballer – it can all change with one episode.”
The “episode” was a Europa League semi-final second leg between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid. Rafael Benítez’s side came into the contest 1-0 down from the first leg in Spain and deep into a season characterised by poor results on the pitch and outright turmoil off it. Liverpool appeared doomed, but roared on by a raucous crowd they swarmed over Atlético and having levelled the tie in normal time, took the lead five minutes into extra time. A major European final beckoned. A rainbow after all the showers. But then came the twist – 102 minutes in, a cross from the right and a lashed finished at the back post. It was a killer away goal and it had been scored by a man who had killed Liverpool in the colours of Manchester United only a few years earlier – Diego Forlán.
All in all, then, a sickening night for the hosts, and few felt the agony more acutely than Aquilani. He had arrived at Liverpool from Roma for £20m the previous August and endured a difficult debut season at the club. The game against Atlético was just his 11th start and given the magnitude of the occasion, he saw it as the perfect way to establish himself on Merseyside. And he not only played well but scored the goal that got Liverpool back on level terms via an impressive right-foot finish on 44 minutes. Yossi Benayoun assisted the strike and when he scored himself on 95 minutes, Aquilani justifiably felt that, at last, everything was falling into place. But then came Forlan.
“If we had won we would have played Fulham in the final and so had a big chance of winning the Europa League. It would have been a first trophy for me and changed my luck – my life – at Liverpool,” Aquilani says. “But we lost and suddenly everything was different for me. My goal, the way I played – it was forgotten.”
Aquilani is speaking from Florence, a city he first moved to after joining Fiorentina, from Liverpool, in 2012 and where he has been head coach of the club’s Under-19s team since July having previously been Under-18s coach and, for six months, first-team assistant. The 36-year-old is enjoying the experience despite the “big worry” of living and working in a country that has been ravaged by coronavirus. “We have rules, we respect the rules, but life is difficult for everybody,” he says solemnly.
A call from England provides Aquilani with a welcome distraction, then, and he is more than happy to talk about the time he spent in this country. But as the conversation develops so too does the sense of frustration and regret in Aquilani’s voice. There is no doubting it – he wishes things had gone better for him at Liverpool and feels they would have done had circumstances been different.
It certainly did not help that he arrived from Roma unable to perform straight away having undergone an operation on his right ankle in May and for which he still required recuperation. “When you sign for a lot of money the fans want to see you play but I could not do this,” Aquilani says. “But Rafa told me not to worry. He said to me you are out for the start of the season but then you will be fit. He saw me as a long-term player, somebody the club had invested in for five years, not five months.”
Benítez’s belief in Aquilani was clear. He described the midfielder, who had made his debut at Roma at the age of 18 and represented Italy at Euro 2008, as a “top-class talent”, but signing someone who was not only injured but had been blighted by injury throughout his time in Rome was clearly a risk. And then there was the reason he was signed – as a replacement for Xabi Alonso, arguably Liverpool’s best player during the previous season when they came within four points of winning the title and who had departed for Real Madrid following a breakdown in his relationship with the manager.
That only cranked up the pressure on Aquilani, although he insists that particular issue was, well, a non issue. “That was a journalists thing – ‘Liverpool sell Alonso and sign Aquilani to replace him’. I never saw it that way. Xabi was a great player but I was comfortable with my quality. Also, I was a different player to him – more offensive.”
Having made his debut against Arsenal in October 2009 Aquilani slowly but surely began to display his qualities, no more so than in Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over Portsmouth in March 2010 when he scored his first goal for the club, assisted another for Fernando Torres and generally shone with his passing and clever, positive moment from a central position. He continued to be in and out of the side, partly due to injury and partly due to an inability to fully get up to speed with English football, but Aquilani insists he felt “more comfortable in the second part of the season” and come the Atlético game was well and truly ready to push on. And he did push on that night. Ultimately, however, it was not enough.
A broader factor was the chaos that was taking place around him. Benítez was at war with the club’s owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, which undeniably affected the team and led to the Spaniard leaving in the summer and being replaced by Roy Hodgson. It was a decisive moment.
“Everything changed and it was difficult because I didn’t know if the club wanted to keep me,” says Aquilani. “I met Roy – he spoke to me in Italian and was a gentleman, but he told me he wanted to buy Joe Cole and make the team more English. It was obvious I would not get many chances to play so I decided it would be good for me to go back to Italy.” And that is what Aquilani did, joining Juventus on a season-long loan prior to making a similar move to Milan the following summer. And then in August 2012 he made his return home permanent by signing for Fiorentina on a three-year contract. Overall he made 28 appearances for Liverpool, scoring twice.
“Maybe it was a mistake [to return to Italy] because as a player when you move to a new country you have to stay there for two years minimum to understand everything properly” Aquilani reflects. “But, really, as soon as Rafa left I knew my time at the club was finished. I was his project and the project ended after only one year.
“I was young when I moved to Liverpool and it was a big change for me, but I enjoyed it there and made many friends – Torres, [Glen] Johnson, [Dirk] Kuyt … [Pepe] Reina. Maybe people think I was not a good signing and not a good player for Liverpool but for me it was a great moment in my life. It was a year I will never forget.”