IT was the game nobody wanted to be at. And for much of last night’s encounter, Liverpool supporters were probably wondering why they’d bothered.

Different competition, same old problems. Having suffered the ignominy of a Champions League exit already this season, Rafael Benitez’s side are finding the Europa League just as unwelcoming.

Their campaign rubbing shoulders with the Continent’s second tier began in subdued fashion with a slender victory at home to Unirea Urziceni in the first leg of their round of 32 tie.

Only a David Ngog header nine minutes from time prevented the Anfield outfit from posting a deeply disappointing goalless draw as they laboured to unlock an obdurate Romanian defence.

And while relief was the overriding emotion, an evening of tangible frustration served to highlight the limitations of Liverpool’s creativity at present.

Before the game, Benitez had pinpointed the persistent injury problems of Fernando Torres as a key reason behind his team’s under-whelming campaign.

Too simplistic? Perhaps. But last night was a game crying out for the pace and devastating finishing that has become a trademark of the striker’s time at Anfield.

Without the Spaniard, Liverpool laboured in the face of the massed Romanian ranks, time and again wayward with the final pass or running straight into trouble.

Even when they did find a way through, their finishing demonstrated exactly why they have netted just four goals in four home European games this season.

Away from the hurly-burly of the Premier League, this should have been a chance for Alberto Aquilani to further rebuild his brittle confidence. But the game worryingly passed him by, with the Italian a peripheral figure in midfield before being hauled off.

Contrast that to the man who replaced him, Dani Pacheco. The diminutive Spaniard took only six minutes to make an impression, his header across goal from fellow substitute Ryan Babel’s cross presenting the opening for Ngog to score the only goal. Pacheco has been touted as one for the future ever since Liverpool poached him from Barcelona’s youth team more than two years ago.

Indeed, his previous two cameo appearances since breaking into the first team in December were enough to prompt the Kop to chant his name even before his game-changing contribution.

But it says much about the depth of Liverpool’s squad that the forward line that ended last night’s game, Ngog and Pacheco, was the one that spearheaded the reserve team last season.

To be fair, Aquilani wasn’t alone in struggling.

Albert Riera spent much of the evening running down blind alleys while even Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard were at times dragged down by the general malaise.

Ngog’s goal does, however, alter the complexion of the tie. Unirea surely cannot afford such a safety-first approach in Bucharest, and a more expansive game from the Romanians could play into Liverpool’s hands.

With the Romanian league only restarting this weekend after a winter break, last night represented coach Roni Levy’s first game in charge after replacing Dan Petrescu and meant Unirea possessed a genuine element of the unknown – and 60 days to prepare for the match.

Benitez had promised a strong team selection and only Lucas Leiva and Emiliano Insua were missing from what could be considered a full-strength line-up.

And any worries the Liverpool manager may have had concerning his team’s motivation were banished in the very first minute.

Straight from Unirea’s kick-off, the home side won possession to prompt a move that ended with Dirk Kuyt sliding the ball in for Gerrard to a unleash a shot turned behind by Unirea goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis.

Read the article on Liverpool Daily Post

Liverpool labour to victory in unwanted game in Europa League

IT was the game nobody wanted to be at. And for much of last night’s encounter, Liverpool supporters were probably wondering why they’d bothered.

Different competition, same old problems. Having suffered the ignominy of a Champions League exit already this season, Rafael Benitez’s side are finding the Europa League just as unwelcoming.

Their campaign rubbing shoulders with the Continent’s second tier began in subdued fashion with a slender victory at home to Unirea Urziceni in the first leg of their round of 32 tie.

Only a David Ngog header nine minutes from time prevented the Anfield outfit from posting a deeply disappointing goalless draw as they laboured to unlock an obdurate Romanian defence.

And while relief was the overriding emotion, an evening of tangible frustration served to highlight the limitations of Liverpool’s creativity at present.

Before the game, Benitez had pinpointed the persistent injury problems of Fernando Torres as a key reason behind his team’s under-whelming campaign.

Too simplistic? Perhaps. But last night was a game crying out for the pace and devastating finishing that has become a trademark of the striker’s time at Anfield.

Without the Spaniard, Liverpool laboured in the face of the massed Romanian ranks, time and again wayward with the final pass or running straight into trouble.

Even when they did find a way through, their finishing demonstrated exactly why they have netted just four goals in four home European games this season.

Away from the hurly-burly of the Premier League, this should have been a chance for Alberto Aquilani to further rebuild his brittle confidence. But the game worryingly passed him by, with the Italian a peripheral figure in midfield before being hauled off.

Contrast that to the man who replaced him, Dani Pacheco. The diminutive Spaniard took only six minutes to make an impression, his header across goal from fellow substitute Ryan Babel’s cross presenting the opening for Ngog to score the only goal. Pacheco has been touted as one for the future ever since Liverpool poached him from Barcelona’s youth team more than two years ago.

Indeed, his previous two cameo appearances since breaking into the first team in December were enough to prompt the Kop to chant his name even before his game-changing contribution.

But it says much about the depth of Liverpool’s squad that the forward line that ended last night’s game, Ngog and Pacheco, was the one that spearheaded the reserve team last season.

To be fair, Aquilani wasn’t alone in struggling.

Albert Riera spent much of the evening running down blind alleys while even Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard were at times dragged down by the general malaise.

Ngog’s goal does, however, alter the complexion of the tie. Unirea surely cannot afford such a safety-first approach in Bucharest, and a more expansive game from the Romanians could play into Liverpool’s hands.

With the Romanian league only restarting this weekend after a winter break, last night represented coach Roni Levy’s first game in charge after replacing Dan Petrescu and meant Unirea possessed a genuine element of the unknown – and 60 days to prepare for the match.

Benitez had promised a strong team selection and only Lucas Leiva and Emiliano Insua were missing from what could be considered a full-strength line-up.

And any worries the Liverpool manager may have had concerning his team’s motivation were banished in the very first minute.

Straight from Unirea’s kick-off, the home side won possession to prompt a move that ended with Dirk Kuyt sliding the ball in for Gerrard to a unleash a shot turned behind by Unirea goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis.

Read the article on Liverpool Daily Post

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