Friday, 19 February 2010

Liverpool 1 Unirea Urziceni 0: It's good, but it's not right

Football - Liverpool v Unirea Urziceni UEFA Europa League Second Round First Leg

Liverpool 1 Unirea Urziceni 0

IT was like waking up in someone else's house. The bed still felt comfy, it was in the right place - but something was wrong.

After mixing it with the elite of Europe for six years - this time last year Rafa Benitez's side were preparing for a trip, a winning trip as it turned out, to Real Madrid - the Europa League was always going to be a comedown.

So it proved.

Like the bedcovers, the crowd was there - upwards of 40,000 fans inside Anfield was a superb display of support for a televised game when tickets (£32) were far from cheap. And like the pillow, the players were there - this was, injuries aside, Liverpool's strongest side.

But like the strange sounds and smells of an alien house, taking on the Romanian champions on a Thursday, rather than the kings of Spain, Italy or France on a Wednesday, just didn't feel right.

Two blokes lurking in the shadows in tracksuit bottoms added to the bizarre spectacle. They were not peeping toms who had lost their binoculars. No, they were the fourth and fifth officials, a system being trialled by UEFA in this competition.

Only Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher remain from the last outing in what was then the UEFA Cup. That was a 2-1 defeat to Marseille - a match which saw Igor Biscan sent off and Liverpool crash out of the competition after drawing 1-1 with the French at Anfield.

And Gerrard almost put the Reds ahead after just 26 seconds, a slick passing move ending with the skipper's first-time shot from inside the area being tipped over by Giedrius Arlauskis for a corner.

Unirea have been out of action since December and warmed up with a 1-0 friendly win over Northwich Victoria on Monday.

Clearly the plan for Liverpool was to start with a high-tempo and expose the Romanian's rustiness. Dirk Kuyt, Gerrard again and David Ngog all had chances in the first half, none clear cut, and only Gerrard's first effort and the Dutchman's strike were on target.

Because while the Reds dominated possession, and won the territorial battle, Unirea's defensive approach frustrated a hard-working but pedestrian Liverpool time and again.

The Romanians offered nothing in attack, mustering just two shots in the whole game, neither of which required Pepe Reina to unfold his deckchair or put down his cigar.

At the other end of the pitch there was not much to speak of either as Liverpool's lack of pace and creativity without Yossi Benayoun, Glen Johnson and Fernando Torres was exposed.

Alberto Aquilani struggled to make an impact, regularly misplacing passes and looking lost in a withdrawn midfield role. It's clearly going to take time for the Italian to make an impression at Liverpool and, on the evidence so far, that impression isn't going to be made playing in front of the defence.

In the second half, Martin Skrtel should have scored from close range after muscling through the defence to get on the end of one of Liverpool's 14 corners but instead his header flew high into the Kop.

And Fabio Aurelio - preferred at left back to Emiliano Insua - tested the keeper from distance with a left-footed drive.

But as the clock ticked down, anxiety went up. Late goals have cost Liverpool dear this season, not least in Europe.

Thankfully, it was Liverpool that found the net as the fat lady cleared her throat. With just nine minutes of normal time left, Dani Pacheco, who had only been on the pitch for six minutes, headed down the cross of Ryan Babel, another impressive substitute performer, and Ngog - who had endured a frustrating evening up front - headed home the winner.

Babel - who had replaced the ineffective Albert Riera - probably left Anfield pleased with his half hour cameo which was punctuated with power, effort, skill and some decent balls into the box.

Fans left Anfield wondering why he doesn't do that every week.

For Rafa Benitez it was job done. A win, a clean sheet, and the knowledge that in the return leg Unirea have to show some kind of attacking ambition to prevent elimination.

The extra space should make for a better game. Truth is, it couldn't be much worse.