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I wasn’t happy at Liverpool – it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down but I ended up cold, fed up and alone



Gabriel Paletta is 38 today and enjoyed an eventful career that include a £2m move to Liverpool.

In years gone by, if I had told you that Liverpool were interested in signing a player who had played a starring role alongside Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero for the Argentina side that won the 2005 FIFA U20 World Cup, was a FIFA Club World Cup runner-up at the age of 21, played at a World Cup and enjoyed seven-and-a-half successful years in Serie A, most notably with AC Milan, you’d be forgiven for getting a little excited at such a prospect.

Yet, believe it or not, Rafa Benitez actually once signed such a player for the Reds.

Surely with such a C.V. he would have proven to be one of the Spaniard’s masterstrokes at Anfield? Especially when informed he scored on his Liverpool debut in 2006 too?

But alas, no. It never worked out on Merseyside with the guilty player moving on after just one season, having only made eight appearances for Reds and cursing his decision to even make the move to Anfield in the first place.

So having thought to be something of a coup for Liverpool when signed in 2006 and actually gone on to enjoy a respectable career to date, where did it all go wrong for the Argentine under Benitez?

The defender first caught the attention of the Reds after starting all seven of Argentina’s games as they won the 2005 FIFA U20 World Cup and following an impressive season with Club Atletico Banfield, where the Argentines even altered their Copa Libertadores squad for the knock-out stages to include the teenager.

With competition in his signature rife, Liverpool wasted no time in agreeing a £2m to land Paletta, confirming his signing on February 14, 2006, with the defender agreeing a four-year deal ahead of linking up with his new team-mates that summer in time for the 2006/07 season.

Described by the Reds as a “strong, decisive and robust defender”, Benitez wasted no time in talking up his latest signing and compared him to some of the Spaniard’s most high-profile defenders following his arrival at Anfield.

“Paletta is very tough and he’s exactly the sort of player we need who will suit The Premiership,” he told the club’s official website. “When you talk about the Argentinian defenders I worked with in Valencia, Paletta is more like Ayala than Pellegrino.

“If you’re talking about Liverpool, he’s more like Carragher than Sami Hyypia. This is good because we will have a balance in the style of defenders.

“He is a defender with a lot of aggression and we’re sure he has a great future. He will learn a lot here, like Daniel Agger, and provide competitiveness in our defence.

“He has attracted a lot of interest from top clubs in Argentina like River Plate and Boca Juniors. River Plate even reserved a number six shirt for him, so we had to move quickly to sign him. We’re delighted to have done the deal now.”

Nicknamed ‘El Taladro’ (The Drill) in his homeland due to his no-nonsense defensive style, Paletta himself was excited to make the switch but admitted he had some way to go to justify being likened to his compatriot, Ayala.

“I think I’m ready for the move to England,” Paletta told the Sunday Mirror at the time. “It’s every South American player’s dream to play in Europe. It’s impossible to turn down the opportunity when it arrives.

“Roberto is a proven star and compared with him I’m only an apprentice. In my opinion Ayala is a monster. A massive player and a massive winner.

“I don’t fear moving into English football. I’m not arriving as a star. I’m just a young player hoping to make progress.”

Yet BBC Sport’s South American expert Tim Vickery couldn’t help but fear the move had come too soon for Paletta.

“In the 1960s Liverpool manager Bill Shankly sent the press on a voyage round giant centre-half Ron Yeats,” he wrote in February 2006. “Perhaps in a few months’ time current Reds boss Rafael Benitez will do the same trick with Gabriel Paletta.

“The young Argentine defender is built like an ox, and the journalists would take a while to circumnavigate him. But I wonder if it might be a journey taking place too soon.

“A strong, rugged, no-nonsense centre back, he caught the eye in both penalty areas, stopping goals at one end, scoring them at the other with his bulky presence and aerial threat.

“He would clearly be on the move before long. The question was where. And he clearly looked the kind of centre-back who one day will do well in Europe. The question is when.”

He continued: “Paletta is one of those complicated South American cases of a player whose registration is not wholly owned by a club. There are other investors involved, who typically prefer short-term profit to long term career development.

“He seemed certain to join local giants River Plate, who even reserved the number six shirt for him.

“In purely football terms, joining River is the obvious step to take. He would learn about the pressures of being with a big club. He would have to cope with the fact that River’s expansive style of play can leave their defenders exposed.

“And he could do all of this in his home environment, while preparing himself for the move to Europe.

“Instead he has skipped a stage. Finance has won over football. With just a year behind him Paletta has opted to move to a country with a different culture, language and football.

“Paletta gave the impression of a highly-promising defender who might need some more mileage before making the move across the Atlantic.”

Ultimately Vickery was proven right and Paletta paid the price, despite a promising start to his Liverpool career.

Handed his debut in a pre-season victory over Wrexham, he certainly made his presence felt in the Reds’ next friendly outing with a bone-crunching challenge on Crewe Alexandra’s Billy Jones just minutes after coming on.

A hard but fair tackle, it certainly caught Benitez’s attention.

“The language is still a problem for Gabriel, and he is having English lessons,” the Spaniard said after the game.

“But I think it’s fair to say there is no problem with his tackling.”

Handed his competitive debut in the Carling Cup against Reading, the Argentine headed home Jermaine Pennant’s corner to give Liverpool a 3-0 lead after just 50 minutes.

However, he almost prompted a late collapse from the Reds too, earning a booking for an aggressive challenge on Stephen Hunt with 15 minutes to go, with Andre Bikey heading home from the resulting free-kick as the Royals fought back in an eventual 4-3 win for Benitez’s side.

Starting in the next round against Birmingham City, he made his Premier League debut off the bench in a 4-0 victory over Wigan Athletic in December, before starting alongside both Carragher and Agger as Liverpool lost 3-2 in a Champions League dead-rubber against Galatasaray.

But his struggles to adapt to English football became abundantly clear in an infamous 6-3 defeat to Arsenal in the League Cup the next month, in which Julio Baptista scored four, and he was ultimately sidelined until the spring.

Writing for BBC Sport after that loss to the Gunners, Vickery pointed out that Liverpool had been warned.

“Gabriel Paletta’s problems at Liverpool should come as no surprise – and should serve as a warning to young South Americans in similar situations,” he said.

“There is a general rule when a player steps up a level, whether it be from juniors to reserves, from the reserves to the first team or from club to international football.

“Usually he will be OK if he can reproduce the quality of performance he was producing in the lower level.

“The problem in Paletta’s case is that this does not apply. He has to learn to defend in a different way.

“Banfield are a traditional but relatively minor Argentine club, who play in tight, cramped stadium. They are not under the same pressure to attack as one of the big teams.

“It means that back at home Paletta was defending much closer to his own goal. If the ball was played behind him, it was the keeper’s. A pair of holding midfielders swept up the danger in front of him.

“However, at Liverpool the defensive line is higher up the field.

“In a type of football much faster than anything he has seen before he is taking up an unaccustomed position – one which all the while threatens to expose his lack of mobility.”

He continued: “It is no wonder he has had problems. He has taken a leap which represents a dangerous risk at this stage in his career.

“Joining River would have been the perfect move. While staying in his own culture he would have learnt much more about how to defend in an attacking team. Make a success of that, and the doors to Europe are open.

“Paletta skipped a stage, and is paying the price.”

Benitez had seen enough with Liverpool making sure not to take a risk with Paletta again.

Making just three further appearances for the Reds, the first came as part of a makeshift side in the Champions League quarter-finals in a 1-0 second leg victory over PSV Eindhoven, having triumphed 3-0 in the first leg in the Netherlands.

His final two outings again came in makeshift backlines, either side of Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final second leg victory over Chelsea, as the Reds fell to defeat against Portsmouth and Fulham with their eyes firmly on a trip to Athens and the chance to again lift Europe’s elite prize.

However, he didn’t even make the bench for a final day draw with Charlton Athletic, still Benitez again rotating ahead of the Champions League final rematch with AC Milan, and come the summer it became clear his future lay elsewhere.

After a loan move to Levante failed to materialize, Paletta made a return to Argentina with Boca Juniors that August as part of the deal saw Emiliano Insua’s loan move made permanent.

Speaking of his decision to let the 21-year-old leave, Benitez conceded the move just hadn’t worked out.

“There is no point considering what I would have done had I known about the injuries,” he said. “But Paletta needed to be playing so it is best that he has gone to Boca.”

Having been so dismissive of his exit, maybe for Benitez he was just another transfer gamble that didn’t pay off?

However, when reflecting on his year on Merseyside, the Argentine admitted he should have remained patient but had to leave because he was unhappy at Liverpool.

“I got fed up and went home,” he told La Repubblica in 2014. “How could I refuse (Boca)? There was the Bombonera, the chants of ‘La Doce’, it was a dream for me.

“I’ll admit I should have been more patient but I wasn’t happy at Liverpool.

“I was alone. I only remember the cold. In a year, I never went out for dinner with a team-mate.”

Had Benitez’s triumphed against Milan in the 2007 Champions League final, Paletta would have been granted a swift reunion with his former club in the FIFA Club World Cup final.

Instead, he faced his future employers, starting at the back against the likes of Kaka and Filippo Inzaghi as Boca suffered a 4-2 defeat.

Paletta was arguably one of the first notable overseas youngsters Benitez managed to bring to Anfield, but was by no means the only one who ultimately failed to make the grade at Liverpool even if his stint on Merseyside was one of the briefest.

Insua and Nabil El-Zahr joined shortly after the Argentine with Damien Plessis, Sebastian Leto and David Ngog later signing up as youngsters with one eye on the immediate first team.

The quintet all arguably made more of an impact on Merseyside than Paletta, but none of them can compete with his post-Reds career.

And his return to Argentina proved to be just the beginning.

Rebuilding his reputation in his homeland, Paletta tried his hand at European football again in 2010 as he signed for Serie A side Parma following three fruitful seasons in Argentina.

As Vickery had previously suggested, such a middle-move had proven beneficial to the centre-back.

Recording 131 appearances across four-and-a-half seasons, Paletta helped Parma to three successive mid-table finishes before clinching a sixth-place standing in 2013/14, with such form even earning him international recognition.

But it wasn’t for Argentina.

In possession of an Italian passport due to his ancestry, with his great-grandfather Vincenzo emigrating from Crotone, Paletta switched allegiances to Italy and was controversially handed his debut against Spain in a friendly in March 2014.

“I grew up in Argentina. My loved ones are there, my son Sebastian was born there,” the defender explained when asked about representing Italy. “But I feel Italian if I think about my great grandfather’s dream.

“He wanted his kids to go back to Calabria with some extra money in their pockets, to say he’d done what he’d set out to do.

“In a certain sense, wearing the blue (of Italy), would complete his journey.”

Having been written off in England as nothing more than another Benitez transfer flop, Paletta had to become accustomed to criticism and mockery from virtually the very start of his fledgling career.

And being included in Cesare Prandellii’s Italy squad for the 2014 World Cup did nothing to shield him from such scrutiny.

“I’ve learnt the national anthem and I’ll be singing it in Brazil”, Paletta stated following his call-up.

While Benitez had admired his no-nonsense defensive style, picking up unnecessary cards and suspensions for being excessively aggressive when tackling was a cloud that continued to haunt the centre-back, along with complaints about his consistency and occasional error-prone nature.

And even when delivering on the pitch, critics could always turn to his clumsy 6ft 3 figure, late-bloomer status or even how he went from a long-haired youngster to a thinning then bald Serie A defender if they wanted to deride a defender who many felt didn’t deserve his seat at the party and was unrecognisable from the baby-faced teenaged first unveiled alongside Benitez in 2006.

Paletta would make just one appearance at that year’s World Cup, winning what would prove to be his only start and final cap in their opening match.

But the fact it came in a 2-1 victory over England went some way to silence the shock at a ‘Liverpool flop’ being involved in the first place.

However, he was replaced by Ignazio Abate for their shock 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica, and again had to watch on from the sidelines as Leonardo Bonucci and Mattia De Sciglio came in for a 1-0 loss to Uruguay that sealed a group-stage exit.

With Parma imploding financially following his return to club action, denied entry to the Europa League because of an overdue tax debt as a result, Paletta was sold to AC Milan in January 2015 with his former side suffering relegation in his absence.

Making 14 appearances under Inzaghi, he spent the 2015/16 season on loan at Atalanta as the appointment of Sinisa Mihajlovic seemed to suggest his second chance at an elite club had passed him by.

But he was granted something of a revival under new boss Vincenzo Montella following his return to the San Siro, making 32 appearances across the 2016/17 appearances as he again did his best to valiantly silence any claims he was punching above his weight.

Falling out of favour again the following year, this time under Gennaro Gattuso, the now 31-year-old cancelled his Milan contract in January 2018 before signing for Chinese side Jiangsu Suning the following month.

Returning to Italy in November 2019, Paletta signed for Serie C outfit AC Monza but this is far from your normal seeing out your final years in the lower tiers.

Owned by former AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, Monza have made no secret of their desire to win promotion to Serie A as quickly as possible.

And the defender helped them move one step closer to achieving that goal, making seven appearances before the coronavirus pandemic saw their league season suspended and the Italian Football Federation belatedly awarded them promotion as champions in June.

Competing in Serie B for the first time since 2001, Paletta was joined at Monza by Kevin-Prince Boateng in September and Mario Balotelli. The team secured a second promotion in succession to Serie A, although the defender did not make an appearance in the Italian top flight for them. His contract was terminated in February 2023.

With the £2m man certainly not a success at Anfield, he is often recalled as one of Liverpool’s worst Premier League signings, having been discarded so swiftly by Benitez and the Reds all those years ago.

But, as he’s proven repeatedly proven throughout his career, in reality he was anything but.

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