Ngog nods Liverpool step closer


EUROPA LEAGUE/Liverpool 1 Unirea Urziceni 0:LIVERPOOL MADE a difficult descent from the Champions League into European football’s second tier last night and the most worrying aspect for Rafael Benitez was that their work-rate, commitment and attitude were not to blame.

The fault was that which dragged them into the Europa League to begin with: a lack of quality when faced with obstinate opponents, although the late impact of two substitutes at least granted Anfield a slender lead to defend in Bucharest next week.

Benitez had issued sufficient warnings that a Europa League containing Juventus, Valencia and Atletico Madrid is not to be taken lightly and much of this encounter proved it can be problematic from the outset. Only when David Ngog headed home from close range in the 81st minute, having been teed up by a combination between Ryan Babel and Daniel Pacheco, did the anxiety around Liverpool’s first fixture at this level for six years begin to disappear.

The Romanian champions were effectively starting anew, having lost the coach who guided them to Champions League wins over Sevilla and Rangers in the first half of this season, the former Chelsea fullback Dan Petrescu, and several key players since last playing a competitive fixture on December 14th.

It did not take long for the rust to show. Unirea gifted possession to Ngog straight from the kick-off and within 26 seconds their goalkeeper, Giedrius Arlauskis, reacted well to Steven Gerrard’s placed effort towards the top corner after Fabio Aurelio and Dirk Kuyt had combined to send the Liverpool captain clear. A long night on the back foot beckoned for a team who prepared for this date with a 1-0 win at Northwich Victoria on Monday.

Benitez had set the correct tone for a competition that will not be derided at Liverpool should they advance towards the final in Hamburg in May by fielding a strong side. There was no evidence of a preoccupation with Sunday’s important league game at Manchester City in the manager’s selection. They showed no signs of complacency as Kuyt dragged another opening wide of the far post and Gerrard sent Albert Riera’s cross off target when picked out for a header inside the area.

Those missed opportunities gave credence to Benitez’s pre-match assertion that patience would be required against opponents whose virtues lay in defence.

On the first two occasions the visitors ventured into the Liverpool half they opted to release possession as quickly as possible, Sorin Frunza ignoring his team-mates in favour of rolling a hopeless free-kick at Jose Reina and Marius Onofras deciding it was somehow a good idea to attempt to beat a goalkeeper of the Spaniard’s calibre with a gentle punt from the halfway line.

Javier Mascherano almost produced a magnificent breakthrough with a 35-yard drive that was deflected away from Arlauskis’s net via a defender’s shoulder and, following a subdued first half, Ngog exploded to life with a neat turn and shot under pressure that rolled narrowly wide.

Despite Gerrard’s probing and movement behind Ngog, Riera’s inconsistent forays on the left and dominating possession to a greater degree than they have in months, Liverpool struggled to find a way behind the Romanian defence. The longer the tie wore on the more it appeared Liverpool’s early superiority was a result of a gulf in match fitness and not, as Anfield had hoped, class. It was only when Aurelio drilled a left-foot shot wide from 25 yards in the 62nd minute that the visiting goalkeeper had to be alert again. After squandering several chances to cross from the left Riera was withdrawn to sarcastic jeers from the home crowd and his replacement, Babel, injected some urgency into Liverpool’s play.

Martin Skrtel headed wastefully over from close range when Aurelio’s corner found him unmarked and Arlauskis saved from Gerrard, until Ngog finally spared Liverpool’s embarrassment.

LIVERPOOL: Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Aurelio, Mascherano, Aquilani (Pacheco 75), Kuyt, Gerrard, Riera (Babel 63), Ngog (Lucas 89). Subs not used: Cavalieri, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Degen. Booked: Mascherano.

UNIREA URZICENI: Arlauskis, Maftei, Galamaz, Bruno Fernandes, Brandan, Paraschiv (Vilana 86), Onofras (Marinescu 75), Paduretu (Rusescu 90), Apostol, Frunza, Bilasco. Subs not used: Tudor, Mehmedovic, Nicu, Bordeanu. Booked: Bruno Fernandes, Brandan.

Referee: Eric Braamhaar (Holland).