In Liverpool's 4-2-3-1 system there is room for two holding midfield players. This season Lucas and Mascherano have been filling in these roles quite competently, however Alberto Aquilani, a £20 million summer signing, is now looking to take one of those two positions. Mascherano is a certainty as, on top form, he is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. On top of that, he is captain of Diego Maradona's Argentina side.
A fight for the other holding midfield role now seems to be developing between Lucas Leiva and Alberto Aquilani, and Lucas defintely has the upper hand, as he is one of only 3 players to have played a part in every single League game this season (the other two are Pepe Reina and Dirk Kuyt.)
The role of Lucas in the first team is probably the most divisive issue between supporters today. His supporters, including myself, recognise his tremendous work rate, thirst for a tackle and commitment to the cause, whilst appreciating the fact that he is only 23 years old and has time to improve further.
His detractors on the other hand, use him as a scapegoat for all of the team's problems this season, citing the fact that he hasn't got the same passing range as Xabi Alonso as a legitimate criticism, while conveniently forgetting that very few players display the same abilites as Xabi Alonso. It's like criticising David Ngog for not being at the same level as Fernando Torres.
Conversely, most fans with half a brain are united in their opinion of Alberto Aquilani. He's a talented player with potential, but he must be given at least a season and a half to get used to the rapid nature of England's Premier League, and to fully recover from his horrible injury problems, that meant he hadn't kicked a ball in anger for several months before he had even arrived on Merseyside.
Of course, the mass media will spout their usual rubbish about Aquilani not being good enough for the Premier League, and Rafa supposedly throwing £20 million down the drain, however they seem to be forgetting that Arsene Wenger, one of the best managers in Premier League history, says that foreigners should be given at least a season to adapt to the pace of the English game.
Also, when discussing Aquilani the mass media rarely mention the fact that Chelsea spent £18 million on Yuri Zhirkov, when the left sided player has only made 8 League appearances for Chelsea during this campaign.
Hypocritically, the London based media forget that one of their teams has spent a ridiculous amount of money on a player who has scarcely featured this season, while complaining that Rafa spent £2 million more on a player who has appeared in one more League game, and has much more attacking quality and potential than Zhirkov, who is likely to spend the duration of his Chelsea career living in the shadow of England's first choice left back, Ashley Cole.
The Italian, who has represented his national team 11 times, scoring 2 goals, has been plauged with an ankle injury, that has restricted him to substitute appearances and only the occasional start this year.
Aquilani needs gametime to get match fit, however, due to the poor performance from the team overall this season, he has been denied the opportunity to build up his match fitness in low pressure encounters, normally at Anfield, against sides who Liverpool are expected to beat.
The pressure Liverpool are under is so intense that Rafa cannot afford to risk playing Aquilani in a must win game, as, currently,he is nowhere near as good as Lucas defensively. Also, Aquilani is unlikely to last a full 90 minutes, therefore causing Rafa to start him on the bench and bring him on only if neccesary.
While this has frustrated many supporters who were eager to see Aquilani immediately transform Liverpool's fortunes, it is the sensible route, and, if he manages to get a full pre-season under his belt, should allow Aquilani a fresh start next season.
For the rest of this season i expect Rafa to stick with Lucas, who has shown signs of an improvement in his passing range and attacking ability recently, however i think that Aquilani will start a lot more games next season as Rafa tries to embed a more attacking mentality into his side, in an attempt to challenge Chelsea and the Manchester teams at the top of the table.