Aquilani stars against his old love

Posted on 16/11/2010

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by Paolo Bandini | The Fotty Blog



An evening with the ex can be an awkward proposition at the best of times, but all the more so when there are still feelings between you. Alberto Aquilani’s time with Roma was no casual thing. In fact, the pair are still very much in love.

“It has been a very hard week,” admitted Aquilani at the conclusion of Juventus’s 1-1 draw with the Giallorossi on Saturday, and that was the first we had heard from him for some time. In the build-up to the game he had done all that he could to avoid the press, fearing questions about his old team might push him over the edge. Privately he was said to be a wreck, unable to sleep as he fretted about what to do if he scored, and how he would be received by Roma fans attending the game.

On the other side too, though, there were strong emotions at play. Some supporters may never forgive his decision to leave Roma, and a larger number the subsequent move to Juventus, of all teams, yet many others retain positive feelings towards a player they know still has strong feelings for his old team. On Saturday there were even some Roma fans who quietly expressed the hope that he might score, but then lose anyway.

Aquilani, after all, had left Roma only because they desperately needed to raise funds – one director commented at the time that his departure would allow them to “pay the rest of the team’s wages” for another season – and because €20m is a lot of money to turn down for a player who had been limited by injury to just 48 league games over the previous three seasons.

The midfielder himself had needed some convincing. Born and raised in the Montesacro neighbourhood in north Rome, and with his father running the gameday ambulance service for Roma games at the Stadio Olimpico, Aquilani had grown up dreaming of playing for one club and one club only.

Although his first pre-contract agreement as a boy was with Lazio – since they had been the only ones to show an interest – he persuaded them to tear it up the instant Roma showed an interest. That he succeeded at all is a mark of his conviction, given the rivalry between the two clubs. At 16 he would reaffirm his loyalties, turning down opportunities to join Chelsea, then managed by Claudio Ranieri, as well as Arsenal, even though both were offering considerable wage increases.

For things to turn sour as quickly as they did at Liverpool, then, was hard to swallow. Injuries prevented Aquilani from making a first league appearance until November and despite some encouraging performances – Liverpool’s fans gave him a standing ovation at the end of his first start, a 2-0 win over Wolves in December – he was in and out of the team. Soon Rafael Benítez was using the need to secure a Champions League berth as an excuse not to deploy a player he had once sought so determinedly.

Presented with a way out by Juventus, in the form of a year-long loan which they may make permanent for €16m at the season’s end, Aquilani felt there wasn’t a decision to make. “Juve is a train that is passing,” he said at the time. “I’ve jumped on with one foot and now I need to prove that I am on board.”

On Saturday evening he showed himself to be not just on the train but driving it. The consensus man-of-the-match for Juventus had set up their opening goal and provided a constant focal point for much of their attacking play, driving onwards through the middle of the pitch and providing a number of exquisite passes to tee up Fabio Quagliarella and Vincenzo Iaquinta up front as well as Simone Pepe on the wing.

His emotion had been apparent upon meeting old friends Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi before kick-off but at the end he told friends the game had “flown by”. He would have long to dwell on his performance afterwards either. He had been called up to the Italy squad for this week’s game against Romania and today he was named in the starting XI. The national team’s manager Cesare Prandelli remarked of Aqulani’s first call-up since February 2009 that “Italian football has rediscovered an important player”.

For while the midfielder’s inability to hold down a place at Liverpool led many to question his talent, as well as his ability to stay healthy, in Italy there have never been any such doubts. The Roma director Bruno Conti, then responsible for the youth team, observed of Aquilani in 1995 that “If this player doesn’t make it, I don’t understand football. If he fails I will change jobs.” Nobody yet has suggested a change of profession.

By the time he signed for Liverpool Aquilani had already appeared 11 times for the national team and as in every other area of his career it was only injuries that had held him back. In just his second full season in Roma’s first-team squad he earned cult-hero status with an outrageous rabona to set up the winner against Milan, but it was the range of passing, the directness of his approach and the elegance with which he moved around the pitch that drew comparisons with the former Roma great Giuseppe Giannini.

Il Messagero newspaper described him after the game against Roma as being possessed of “velvet feet and a superior brain”, and Juventus have quickly discovered that none of the old grace has been lost. To observe Aquilani on the ball at times is like watching a coaching video on footballing technique. Few players even at the top level are able to keeps their heads up, and their eyes searching for a pass, so consistently when under pressure from opponents.

It is of course, still early days for Aquilani at Juventus, and the club desperately need him to sustain such form in this delicate period as they struggle onwards without Milos Krasic (though there are optimistic reports he can return from his thigh strain), Jorge Martínez and now Simone Pepe, who is due a one-game suspension. For once, then, the onus is on Aquilani to make up for other people’s absences, instead of his own.

Paolo Bandini covers Italian football for guardian.co.uk and Astro SuperSport, as well as The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @Paolo_Bandini.

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