It’s not an easy task to be a replacement for a personality befitting of the term ‘club legend’. David Moyes found that out to great cost when he succeeded Alex Ferguson as Manchester United manager in 2013, with neither the current West Ham boss nor the Old Trafford club able to repair their respective reputations since. It’s also a scenario with which Alberto Aquilani will be all too familiar, having been signed for Liverpool effectively as a replacement for the mercurial Xabi Alonso. The Spaniard’s boots proved too big for the injury-prone Italy international to fill.
Aquilani started his professional career at hometown club AS Roma, sampling a small taste of first-team action as a teenager before a season-long loan to Serie B side Triestina in 2003. It was upon his return to the Stadio Olimpico in 2004/04 that, along with fellow young midfielder Daniele de Rossi, he forged his way into the first team, his skill and passion endearing himself to the volatile Roma faithful. Another fruitful season had some pundits tipping him to be a surprise inclusion in Italy’s World Cup squad. That didn’t materialise, but Aquilani was a key figure in the Roma team by the time the Azzurri came home as world champions. However, the 2006/07 season was one of frustration for the midfielder, who endured several months on the sidelines through injury. That pattern continued over the next two years for Aquilani, a commanding presence while on the pitch but dogged by injuries.
Having been linked with a move away from Liverpool in 2008, Alonso departed Anfield a year later after astoundingly being considered dispensable by Rafael Benitez. In his place came Aquilani, who passed his medical at Melwood despite not being fit enough to play at the start of the 2009/10 season. He had to wait until late October to make his first-team debut in a League Cup defeat to Arsenal, by which stage Liverpool’s season was already on the path to irrecoverable ruin. It was Boxing Day by the time Aquilani started a Premier League match, but an assured display saw him being given a standing ovation by the Kop faithful when he was substituted late on.
The Italian didn’t get a sustained run in the Liverpool team until the final three months of the season, but when he did, he looked tidy in possession and provided his share of assists. He scored in the Reds’ 2-1 victory at home to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-finals, but Liverpool were knocked out on away goals. Despite earning the appreciation of Kopites for his performances towards the end of the season, Aquilani’s future at the club was called into doubt when Benitez was sacked in May 2010 and replaced by Roy Hodgson, who declared him available for loan.
Aquilani returned to his homeland for the 2010/11 campaign, being loaned out to Juventus, where he finally had a season largely free of injury trouble and rediscovered his confidence. By the end of that loan spell, Hodgson was gone from Anfield to be replaced by Kenny Dalglish, who seemed open to giving Aquilani another chance at Liverpool. However, he was sent on loan again, this time to Serie A champions AC Milan. Another change of management at Liverpool, Dalglish making way for Brendan Rodgers in summer 2012, appeared to give the Italian one final shot at making it with the Reds.
Aquilani’s heart appeared to be elsewhere, though, and his fractured time at Liverpool came to an end in August 2012 when he signed for Fiorentina, later saying that he would have made either of his loans at Juventus or Milan permanent if those clubs had met Liverpool’s asking price for a transfer fee. In the end, he departed Anfield on a free transfer.
After three seasons at Fiorentina in which he got some stability back into his career and reminded people why he was so highly rated as a youngster at Roma, Aquilani was released by the Florence-based club in 2015 and moved to Sporting Lisbon, whom he represented in the Europa League. Since the summer of 2016, he has led the life of an archetypal journeyman, signing for Pescara and then joining Sassuolo on loan last January. Since the beginning of this season, Aquilani has been playing in Spain with Las Palmas, who are currently in the midst of an uphill relegation battle in La Liga.
The Italy midfielder certainly had the ability, but he never truly got to show it in the red of Liverpool as injuries blighted his time at Anfield. He was also the victim of unfortunate timing, having joined the club in the wake of Alonso’s crushing departure and been a Liverpool player during the reign of four managers, despite only being on Merseyside for three years and playing a mere 28 games for the Reds. The biggest problem with Alberto Aquilani, it seemed, is that he’s not Xabi Alonso.