They brought high hopes and expectations when they arrived. They were the missing pieces of the jigsaw. They were going to help Liverpool reclaim their place amongst England’s elite after a prolonged absence.
Unfortunately for Alberto Aquilani and Joe Cole, it didn’t quite work out as planned for them at Anfield; both men found themselves loaned out only a year after signing for the Reds.
Aquilani, who joined from Roma in the summer of 2009 for a fee of £20m, has spent the last two seasons on loan to Juventus and then AC Milan. However, both clubs declined the option to sign the Italian international on a permanent basis. Juventus first decided that £13m was too much to pay for the midfielder before AC Milan gave him 24 games during his loan spell; they were only a game away from triggering a clause which meant that they would have to sign him for £6.4m.
The move to Milan was a surprise as the manager at the time, Kenny Dalglish, made comments which implied that Aquilani had a future at Anfield under his tenure. Indeed, he starred in pre-season games and looked to be in contention for a regular first-team place under the Scot until he was sent back to his homeland for another season. Dalglish later claimed that the Italian would not fit into the system he was looking to play at Anfield.
The chance to salvage a career on Merseyside may yet be offered to Aquilani with the club under new management in Brendan Rodgers. Although he is not the deep-lying playmaker that Xabi Alonso was, he fits into Rodgers’ philosophy as someone who likes to pass the ball and retain possession. A quick glance at his statistics shows that he is not a great goalscorer but offers more of a creative influence on the team – a stylish upgrade on both Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson, perhaps?
If Rodgers is to give Aquilani a second chance, he would have to hope that the midfielder is not hampered by the same injury problems which were so prevalent during his first year in England. He arrived with an ankle injury, which had been operated on at Roma, but Rafael Benitez said that he was fully aware of the problem and was willing to wait for Aquilani to recover, buying him anyway.
Since joining Liverpool, Aquilani has made only 28 appearances for the club with 2 goals to his name. He was restricted by injuries and poor fitness, which meant that he rarely completed ninety minutes under Benitez. He impressed in flashes, winning a series of man of the match awards for some sparkling displays but he didn’t even feature in half of the club’s league fixtures.
Aquilani’s agent has claimed that the injury problems are “a thing of the past” and, at 28, he should be coming into his prime as a midfielder. With only two years left of a five-year contract, Liverpool need to decide whether to give him a second chance or to take a cut-price fee and rid themselves of him. Rodgers has said that Aquilani is “a good guy” who things haven’t worked out for at Anfield but, nonetheless, he is “a player with the qualities, in terms of technical and tactical ability, to play”.
Similarly, Joe Cole could make the most of his second chance at Anfield to really make his mark after a disappointing debut season for the Reds.
A free transfer from Chelsea, the 30 year-old came to Merseyside with a reputation as a player of real quality who represented a coup for Liverpool but, as the fans soon found out, that was far from the truth.
A red card on his league debut at home to Arsenal for a lunge at Laurent Koscielny was followed by a penalty miss against Trabzonspor in the Europa League qualifying rounds; not the ideal start to life at his new club. It didn’t get much better as it took him until January to score his first league goal – a last-minute winner against Bolton. His first season at Anfield totalled 32 games, only 9 of them starts, with 3 goals.
French champions Lille arranged a loan deal with Liverpool for Cole and he joined the club for the duration of the 2011/12 season. They were so impressed with him during the loan spell that they wished to make it a permanent move but accepted that he would be in the plans of new manager Rodgers. Linking up with the dangerous Eden Hazard seemed to spark the England international into life as he scored 9 goals in 42 appearances which gives encouragement to Liverpool fans and suggests that he could make a positive contribution if given the opportunities upon his return to Anfield.
Much like Aquilani, Cole is a player who could fit into Rodgers’ 4-3-3 system as he has experience of playing as a wide player in that formation under José Mourinho whilst at Chelsea. This was where Cole was at his most devastating, being almost unplayable at times whilst frequently switching wings with Arjen Robben. Again, there are similarities with Aquilani in that he could be seen as an upgrade on another flop, Stewart Downing; only if the Joe Cole of Chelsea can be rediscovered, that is.
The problem with both Aquilani and Cole is that they are amongst the top earners at the club. This may not sit too kindly with Fenway Sports Group, the owners of the club, and they may look to sell one, or both, to free up some extra money. Despite loaning the pair out last season, the club subsidised a portion of the wages – particularly Cole’s rumoured £90k/week package – and would not want to waste money in such a manner again, particularly with the implementation of Financial Fair Play. If both players are not viewed as valuable members of the first team squad, they will leave.
Rodgers has come out in the press saying that there will be no spending spree at Liverpool over the course of this summer as the club “don’t have a wheelbarrow load of money”. Frankly, there isn’t much need to spend the ludicrous amounts that Kenny Dalglish did as two potential solutions to Liverpool’s problems are right under the manager’s nose. It’s down to him whether he chooses to use them or not.
They say you should never go back; especially in football. It doesn’t work. Steven Pienaar would disagree. Returning to Everton, he says, has been like “coming back home”. Goodison Park was a home he should never have left in the first place.
Pienaar signed for Tottenham on a four-year contract in January 2011 with dreams of Champions League football. However, injuries and competition for places saw his playing time at White Hart Lane limited – he has made only two substitute appearances in the Premier League this season and has found himself deployed in cup competitions to allow Harry Redknapp an opportunity to rest his star players.
It hasn’t been enough for the 30 year-old South African, who craved more time on the pitch than he was receiving at Spurs. On the last day of the January transfer window Pienaar, with his pride well and truly swallowed, was given permission by Redknapp to leave Tottenham, rejecting the advances of Stoke and QPR to go back to Everton – a club whom he can only speak of with the greatest fondness.
Spurs are reported to want to make back the £3m they spent on taking Pienaar to White Hart Lane though some sources claim that the fee could be doubled. Everton must find the money to bring him back for the long term because his form since the loan move will have put him into the shop window. A Goodison stay is likely, though, with the player reported to want the move to go through “100%”. Everton manager David Moyes is also confident that the South African wants to stay with the Toffees.
One squad member who may play a big part in getting Pienaar to stay is Leighton Baines. The England international, who was selected in the PFA Team of the Year, had an excellent partnership with Pienaar during his three-and-a-half year spell on Merseyside and that immediately continued upon his return. Pienaar says that the pair have an “understanding both on and off the field”.
It is an understanding which Everton dearly missed in their 2-1 FA Cup semi-final defeat to bitter rivals Liverpool. Although Pienaar played in the 3-0 league defeat at Anfield, Everton played with a little more attacking intent at Wembley – something Pienaar would have loved to have been at the heart of. His performances have demanded more from other members of the squad who have duly stepped up their own game.
Marouane Fellaini, consistent though he is, has been unplayable in recent weeks; he and Pienaar were the two best players on the field in the 4-4 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, new striking addition Nikica Jelavic has been in deadly goalscoring form since his arrival as the major beneficiary of Pienaar’s creativity.
Despite all of the praise, Pienaar’s main weakness which will limit his chances at Tottenham is his lack of pace. With Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon on either wing at his parent club, he could find first-team opportunities at Spurs as limited upon his return as they before he rejoined Everton. Bale and Lennon will be Harry Redknapp’s first-choice wingers and he is unlikely to drop either Luka Modric or Scott Parker in favour of the South African.
If Everton is “home” to Pienaar, as he says it is, the wisest choice – should the chance arise for him to move on from Tottenham this summer – would be to come back to Merseyside for a third time. For him to turn up anywhere else would be ludicrous. It is the proverbial no-brainer. Everton is a club that suits Pienaar and his style of play; he plays his best football in the blue shirt and both parties reap the benefit.
There would seem to be a correlation between Pienaar’s presence at Everton that matches his form, confidence and happiness. Indeed, in Everton’s last four games they have scored thirteen goals and Pienaar has been directly involved, scoring or assisting, in six of those. Since his return he has three goals and seven assists in twelve starts. It is the type of form that has won over the small section of fans who were unhappy with his return and it should have David Moyes begging his chairman, Bill Kenwright, to give him the money to secure a permanent transfer for the South African captain.
Money may be reported as being in short supply at Goodison but Pienaar is a player that the club simply cannot afford to miss out on. It was Moyes’ shrewdness in the transfer market which originally brought Pienaar to Goodison Park and it is of the utmost importance that he brings him back for a third time.
Before him, there were seven: Andrei Kanchelskis, Dmitri Kharine, Alexey Smertin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Yuri Zhirkov, Andrei Arshavin and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. Now, as the only Russian in the Premier League, Pavel Pogrebnyak is seeking to break the mould following his arrival on transfer deadline day.
The former VfB Stuttgart striker has begun life down by the Thames with five goals in his first three games – including a ‘perfect’ hat-trick at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend: a bullet header, a sweeping first-time finish and a stumbling stab. It continued the impressive record of scoring with every shot on target he has had; so far it is five from five.
Fulham’s manager, Martin Jol, believes that the 28 year-old is a “real number nine” who has the ability to make it in the Premier League and become the club’s long-term successor for Bobby Zamora, who was sold to Queens Park Rangers in January. He said: “Pavel always wants to work. Twice this week he stayed longer on the pitch after training. He wants to work on his game. He’s a hard-working player and everything he has achieved is by hard work.”
Whilst Pogrebnyak has been a valuable import so far, other Premier League clubs decided to send their Russian players back home. Everton disposed of Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, calling time on his mercurial English adventure whilst Roman Pavlyuchenko’s sporadic goalscoring form was never going to be enough for him to remain at Tottenham for the long-term.
In the most high-profile move, Andrei Arshavin rejoined his old side, Zenit St Petersburg, on loan for the remainder of the season from Arsenal. His biggest impact on the Premier League is, undoubtedly, the four goals he scored at Anfield in the famous 4-4 draw of April 2009, although he returns to Russia with his reputation tarnished by accusations of apathy.
Pogrebnyak, who also played for Zenit earlier in his career where he won the UEFA Cup alongside Arshavin in 2008, seemed to have lost his way in Germany – if he did not score when he played, he would not appear at all in the next match. Now, though, having been promised minutes on the field by Jol, ‘The Pog’ seems to have settled into Premier League football well, showing all of the qualities needed to succeed.
As well as being a mouthful for commentators, he has been a handful for defenders. Standing at 6ft 3in, Pogrebnyak is a formidable combination of speed and strength; it is difficult to cope with him and the goal which settled the West London derby was indicative of his quality.
Played through by a sumptuous Moussa Dembélé back-heel, the Russian hitman found himself one-on-one with Paddy Kenny. In this situation, a striker would often opt to finish first time, slotting the ball past the goalkeeper. Not Pogrebnyak. He dummied to shoot, Kenny dived and could only watch from the floor as Fulham’s new hero waltzed past him as if he were not there before rolling the ball into an empty net. It made a mockery of suggestions that Pogrebnyak had lost his way having scored only one goal in fourteen appearances for Stuttgart this season.
His contract runs out at the end of the season and, if he maintains this current form, Pogrebnyak will have a queue of admirers falling over each other to try and sign him. Fulham will hope that he becomes a resident of Craven Cottage to continue his own revival and buck the trend of under-performing Russians.