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Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 17:53 UK

Stepping out of the shadows

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

They come from different worlds. One is from Canada's cowboy country capital Calgary, the other hails from the sophisticated cappuccino culture of Rome, but they share the same concerns.

Owen Hargreaves and Alberto Aquilani
Manchester United's Hargreaves and Liverpool's Aquilani ready for action

Restricted to lingering looks from the treatment table at this week's Champions League games and Sunday's crucial Liverpool v Man Utd game, Owen Hargreaves and Alberto Aquilani are bedevilled by the doubts that drip through a footballer's mind like water torture - doubts that come with injury.

On the surface it would appear that Hargreaves has the greater problem - he is the forgotten man of English football.

He hasn't kicked a ball for United since 21 September 2008 at Chelsea.

The patella tendinitis injury that restricted him to sporadic appearances in his first season at the club finally needed surgery. He had an operation on his right knee 11 months ago and on the left knee in January.

Months of rehabilitation work in the United States followed and finally the £18m midfielder is back in training watched closely by the physiotherapists who worked with him in the States. A first-team return might be weeks or even days away.

He will have convinced himself that he can return to the sort of fitness and form that earned the former Bayern Munich Champions League winner the England Player of the Year award in 2006 but at the back of the mind there will be nagging uncertainty.

What if the knees go again? What if he can't cover the ground as quickly and astutely as he did in Germany's World Cup finals?

He'll put himself under more pressure than he'll experience from the fans and media but if knee surgeon Richard Steadman has again lived up to his renown, then the reality is that Hargreaves can still have a terrific future in the English game.

He's only 28 and a fully-fit Hargreaves will be like a bonus new signing for manager Sir Alex Ferguson who saw his central midfield totally out-manoeuvered by Barcelona in the Champions League final last May. United badly need his tackling zest at the heart of things.

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He also still has time to make the England World Cup squad and if he can prove his fitness to Fabio Capello, he stands an excellent chance of being named in the final 23.

Hargreaves can pressurise Gareth Barry for the anchor midfield role, play in a more adventurous position or fill in at right-back. The Italian manager will appreciate his versatility and technique.

Bad footballers don't play 212 games for Bayern Munich and it shouldn't be forgotten that Hargreaves won four Bundesliga titles, three German Cups, the German League Cup, Champions League and World Club Championship with Bayern.

He may have been the first England international who'd never actually lived on English soil and he may have been given loads of abuse in his early international career, but the days of England fans booing his name have long gone.

He became a folk hero after his performances in Germany three years ago and he won hearts and minds. His return will be a welcome sight for so many people who won't be expecting great things from him initially so in a way he has nothing to lose.

Aquilani isn't in the same boat. He'll sink or swim for Liverpool when he eventually makes his long overdue Anfield first-team debut and the 25-year-old Italian will feel the heat immediately, he has my sympathy.

There is no question about his ability. In 147 games for his boyhood club Roma, he scored 15 goals and won the Coppa Italia twice but he has everything to prove in England.

Liverpool fans will see him as the direct replacement for the popular Xabi Alonso who had a terrific 2008/09 season.

The hype hasn't helped. It's been said that he's a better passer of the ball and will score more goals than Alonso while the expectancy levels have been set very high with the £17m transfer a weighty millstone.

His debut has been delayed way beyond the original estimated time of recovery from his latest injury and rather disturbingly, his career has been blighted by fitness problems.

Owen Hargreaves
After shining at the 2006 World Cup, could Hargreaves star in South Africa?

Knee and thigh injuries wrecked 2006/07 for him, he was out from October 2007 to January 2008 with another thigh injury and missed the same three months the following season with a recurrence. The thigh went again against Chelsea a year ago and his comeback lasted just a month before an ankle knock sidelined him once more.

So it's no surprise that Liverpool supporters will have their doubts. He'll also be concerned at being billed as a saviour of the club's season - the pressure could destroy a budding career before it has the chance to bloom in England.

It reminds me of a situation at Bristol City, albeit at a lower level of course.

In 1979 they paid a club record fee for St Mirren's Tony Fitzpatrick, beating a number of top clubs to the signature of one of Scotland's brightest young players. He was a good passer of the ball and a fine midfielder but he was under immediate pressure to stop the rot at Ashton Gate where City were on the slide.

As one gloomy week passed into another mournful one, he couldn't do it. Fans wanted him to fill the boots of local legend Gerry Gow and it was heartbreaking to see, at close hand, the confidence of a fine footballer being shredded. After two years he went back to Scotland - his career in England had failed.

Imagine then the heavy burden on Aquilani's shoulders. Every kick from his first reserve team game this week will be scrutinised. He could be a massive instant success, but he could be a complete flop and that would endanger manager Rafael Benitez.

Hargreaves and Aquilani share a problem. But while anything the United player does this season will be a bonus, Aquilani must succeed. In that respect, they are as far apart as the Calgary Stampede and the Roman Coliseum.




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see also
Best is yet to come - Hargreaves
11 Oct 09 |  Man Utd
Man Utd handed Hargreaves boost
30 Sep 09 |  Man Utd
Aquilani in Liverpool appearance
21 Oct 09 |  Liverpool
Liverpool sign Aquilani from Roma
09 Aug 09 |  Liverpool
CSKA Moscow 0-1 Man Utd
21 Oct 09 |  Europe
Ukraine face finals struggle
14 Oct 09 |  Internationals
Case for the defence
29 Sep 09 |  Premier League
How to watch Match of the Day
01 Oct 08 |  Match of the Day


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