Heads Up! Lierpool’s Yossi Benayoun grabs the winner against Real Madrid in the Champions League

at this time of year recently reads like a who’s who of European football.

; all have all dazzled the Anfield crowd in recent seasons – and all have left empty-handed. Great players, great games, great nights.

This Thursday at Anfield, Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni will add their name to that illustrious list, but in the consolation prize of the Europa League, rather than the glitz and glamour of the Champions League.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Rafael Benitez and his side. This time last year, the Reds were preparing for a momentous trip to Madrid, and the awe-inspiring Santiago Bernabeu; now they face the ignominy of being second seeds to a side who have just one European campaign to their name. Benitez and his team will view this week’s Champions League ties with regret coursing through their veins, regret at how their own campaign imploded through autumn and winter.

Twelve months ago in the Bernabeu, Yossi Benayoun’s late header ensured Liverpool’s first visit to Real Madrid ended in an historic triumph. A fortnight later, with Madridistas promising plenty, the Reds swept to a four-goal success, and the continent seemed to be in the palm of Benitez’s hand.

What a difference a year makes. The names remain largely the same, but the scenery at Anfield has undeniably shifted. It is little surprise that plenty of Reds are wondering how they will rouse themselves for a Europa League campaign – Anfield is unlikely to be a sell-out for the Romanians’ visit.

In truth, the Europa League needn’t be viewed with the disdain shown by most in recent years. This season’s competition houses teams of the pedigree of Juventus, Ajax, Valencia and Roma; yet still Liverpool, and their supporters, will find it hard to get too excited about 2010’s European ‘adventure’.

It isn’t Unirea’s fault of course. The Anfield faithful have been spoilt for European memories under Benitez, seduced by their fairytale success in 2005 – when a team containing Igor Biscan, Djimi Traore and Vladimir Smicer toppled the might of Juventus, Chelsea and Milan en route to a historic fifth European Cup.

Benitez had just the one European ‘failure’ on his record at Anfield. Their 2006 loss to a neat Benfica side was greeted as such, but hindsight shows that Liverpool’s side was hardly stunning, and that the Portuguese outfit possessed plenty of class and resilience, having ousted Manchester United in the group stages that same season. This year’s elimination at the first hurdle ranks as a far more severe aberration for Benitez and his troops.

So much so, that instead of preparing for 80,000 and the eyes of the world in Madrid, or going head-to-head in a mouth-watering clash with a Milan giant – as United and Chelsea are doing this month – Liverpool find themselves second-billing, at best. No Champions League theme music on Thursday at Anfield.

Their opponents, Unirea, have enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom. Little more than eight years ago, they were plying their trade in the third tier of Romanian football, in front of crowds of easily less than 1,000. Their tiny Tineretului Stadium holds just 7,000 – the same as Aldershot Town’s Recreation Ground, for an English comparison.

As a result, when Liverpool travel to Romania for the away leg on February 25, they will head not to Urziceni, but to Bucharest – some 60 kilometres away – after UEFA deemed the Tineretului unfit for European competition, and ordered Unirea to play their home fixtures at Steaua’s 27,500-capacity Steaua Stadium instead. Liverpool managed a 1-1 draw with Steaua in the same stadium in 2003.

As for the players, the likes of George Galamaz or Marius Onofras are hardly household names, but Unirea should be applauded for their incredible success on a shoestring budget. The fact that they were seeded above Liverpool in the draw for this game says plenty about the Romanians’ achievements, and a 4-1 win over Rangers at Ibrox proves that Ronny Levy – the Israeli who replaced former Chelsea star Dan Petrescu as Unirea manager in December – has a talented squad.

Liverpool cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves on Thursday. They may be embroiled in a testing battle to secure a space at Europe’s top table next season – with a vital trip to rivals Manchester City to follow hot on the heels of Unirea’s visit – but Benitez will know that if his side are to retain their status amongst Europe’s elite, an early exit from the Europa League will do their chances few favours. What a difference a year makes indeed.

Read the article on Goal.com

Liverpool Comment: From Real Madrid To Unirea Urziceni, What A Difference A Year Makes

Heads Up! Lierpool’s Yossi Benayoun grabs the winner against Real Madrid in the Champions League

at this time of year recently reads like a who’s who of European football.

; all have all dazzled the Anfield crowd in recent seasons – and all have left empty-handed. Great players, great games, great nights.

This Thursday at Anfield, Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni will add their name to that illustrious list, but in the consolation prize of the Europa League, rather than the glitz and glamour of the Champions League.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Rafael Benitez and his side. This time last year, the Reds were preparing for a momentous trip to Madrid, and the awe-inspiring Santiago Bernabeu; now they face the ignominy of being second seeds to a side who have just one European campaign to their name. Benitez and his team will view this week’s Champions League ties with regret coursing through their veins, regret at how their own campaign imploded through autumn and winter.

Twelve months ago in the Bernabeu, Yossi Benayoun’s late header ensured Liverpool’s first visit to Real Madrid ended in an historic triumph. A fortnight later, with Madridistas promising plenty, the Reds swept to a four-goal success, and the continent seemed to be in the palm of Benitez’s hand.

What a difference a year makes. The names remain largely the same, but the scenery at Anfield has undeniably shifted. It is little surprise that plenty of Reds are wondering how they will rouse themselves for a Europa League campaign – Anfield is unlikely to be a sell-out for the Romanians’ visit.

In truth, the Europa League needn’t be viewed with the disdain shown by most in recent years. This season’s competition houses teams of the pedigree of Juventus, Ajax, Valencia and Roma; yet still Liverpool, and their supporters, will find it hard to get too excited about 2010’s European ‘adventure’.

It isn’t Unirea’s fault of course. The Anfield faithful have been spoilt for European memories under Benitez, seduced by their fairytale success in 2005 – when a team containing Igor Biscan, Djimi Traore and Vladimir Smicer toppled the might of Juventus, Chelsea and Milan en route to a historic fifth European Cup.

Benitez had just the one European ‘failure’ on his record at Anfield. Their 2006 loss to a neat Benfica side was greeted as such, but hindsight shows that Liverpool’s side was hardly stunning, and that the Portuguese outfit possessed plenty of class and resilience, having ousted Manchester United in the group stages that same season. This year’s elimination at the first hurdle ranks as a far more severe aberration for Benitez and his troops.

So much so, that instead of preparing for 80,000 and the eyes of the world in Madrid, or going head-to-head in a mouth-watering clash with a Milan giant – as United and Chelsea are doing this month – Liverpool find themselves second-billing, at best. No Champions League theme music on Thursday at Anfield.

Their opponents, Unirea, have enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom. Little more than eight years ago, they were plying their trade in the third tier of Romanian football, in front of crowds of easily less than 1,000. Their tiny Tineretului Stadium holds just 7,000 – the same as Aldershot Town’s Recreation Ground, for an English comparison.

As a result, when Liverpool travel to Romania for the away leg on February 25, they will head not to Urziceni, but to Bucharest – some 60 kilometres away – after UEFA deemed the Tineretului unfit for European competition, and ordered Unirea to play their home fixtures at Steaua’s 27,500-capacity Steaua Stadium instead. Liverpool managed a 1-1 draw with Steaua in the same stadium in 2003.

As for the players, the likes of George Galamaz or Marius Onofras are hardly household names, but Unirea should be applauded for their incredible success on a shoestring budget. The fact that they were seeded above Liverpool in the draw for this game says plenty about the Romanians’ achievements, and a 4-1 win over Rangers at Ibrox proves that Ronny Levy – the Israeli who replaced former Chelsea star Dan Petrescu as Unirea manager in December – has a talented squad.

Liverpool cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves on Thursday. They may be embroiled in a testing battle to secure a space at Europe’s top table next season – with a vital trip to rivals Manchester City to follow hot on the heels of Unirea’s visit – but Benitez will know that if his side are to retain their status amongst Europe’s elite, an early exit from the Europa League will do their chances few favours. What a difference a year makes indeed.

Read the article on Goal.com

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