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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

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Aquilani the mystery man

The money has presumably been deposited in Roma's bank account, the No. 4 shirt has been allocated and the name appears on the back of the programme for every home game. Yet Liverpool supporters could be forgiven for thinking that Alberto Aquilani, the most expensive midfielder in their club's history, is something of a mythical figure.

Unveiled at Anfield more than two months ago, he has now reappeared on the cover of the club's magazine, announcing that his ambition is to score in front of the Kop. They, in turn, would surely settle for him merely performing in front of them in the near future. The Italian has been swimming and running, according to Rafael Benitez, without yet taking the field after undergoing ankle surgery in May.

Since then, Liverpool's initial estimates have proved optimistic. It was initially thought the £20 million midfielder would be able to debut at Sunderland on Saturday. Now the Carling Cup clash with Arsenal on October 28 appears a more realistic date for Aquilani's introduction. As ever, context is everything: that is three days after Manchester United visit Anfield. Such games are never irrelevant, but given Liverpool's mixed start to the season, it has assumed vast importance.

So, given their defeat to Fiorentina a fortnight ago, has next week's Champions League match against Lyon. Both will occur without Aquilani. In his absence, Lucas has been an ever-present in the starting line-up. Neither as inadequate as his critics insist or as inspired as his manager seems to believe, he nonetheless appears the perennial stand-in, rather than a contender for a place in his own right. The midfield equation has been complicated by the South American qualifying group for the World Cup, which has resulted in Lucas and Javier Mascherano having tiring journeys back for the Sunderland game. It is possible that Steven Gerrard will have to be shifted back into midfield again on Saturday.

But while the captain and Fernando Torres tend to dominate discussions about Liverpool, a third name has figured increasingly frequently this season: that of the departed Xabi Alonso. It has brought the belated recognition outside Anfield of Alonso's importance to the team, his ability to transfer defence into attack with one well-judged pass and to release Torres and Gerrard on devastatingly effective breaks.

That Alonso is being missed is beyond dispute. What remains to be seen is how suitable a replacement Aquilani is. It might not be a straight swap, but he offers the prospect of adding another dimension to Liverpool's play: while the Spaniard excelled immediately in front of the back four, aided by his outstanding passing game, the Italian is more likely to prove a bridge between defence and attack, promising to be a high-class box-to-box midfielder. In Benitez's planning, he appears one of six vital components of the spine of the side, with Jose Reina, Jamie Carragher and Mascherano behind him and Gerrard and Torres ahead of him.

But that remains a theory that is yet to be put into practice. Lucas tends to occupy a deeper role than Aquilani, meaning Gerrard often retreats into his own half looking for the ball and leaving Torres alone in attack. And when the left-back Fabio Aurelio operates in the centre of midfield, as he did unsuccessfully in Florence, it highlights the lack of specialists in the position.

Fitter alternatives were available in the summer. Indeed, lower-calibre options were linked with Liverpool, such as Christian Poulsen. Given Benitez's relatively small budget (once sales are factored in) and the comparative lack of strength in depth at Anfield, it can be asked if the Liverpool manager would have been better off dividing his funds and signing a midfielder as well as the extra attacker many believe he requires.

And the answer, once again, has to be delayed. It is impossible to conclude before Aquilani figures. What can be said for certain is that everything has been predicated on Aquilani: the belief that he will become fit and stay fit and the hope that Liverpool will remain in the title race by the time he finally figures; the conviction that he will dovetail with Mascherano and consign Alonso to fond memory; the feeling that he has the class to ensure that Liverpool's first-choice 11 - although certainly not their deputies - can be regarded as the best in the Premier League.

Last season, their central midfield axis had a strong claim to be the outstanding duo in their position in the division. This year, once again, verdicts have to be postponed. The same applies to the manager's expenditure: while co-owner George Gillett believes Liverpool have spent more than their rivals, a point of view that bemuses many observers, judgment on Benitez's summer spending will have to be withheld until Aquilani is available.

That cannot come soon enough, either for Liverpool or Aquilani himself. With every game he misses, the anticipation grows. As Liverpool enter a pivotal week in their season, his ongoing absence means the mystery of his eventual impact has increased. And in the final reckoning, the first two months of Liverpool's season could be summed up in three words: waiting for Aquilani.

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