It was Marseille away, in case you’ve been wondering. That was Liverpool’s last UEFA Cup fixture.
It was March 2004, and the Reds were run ragged in the south of France by Didier Drogba and Steve Marlet as they exited European football’s second tier competition at the fourth round stage. Emile Heskey fired past Fabien Barthez to put them in front, but Igor Biscan was sent off for pulling back Marlet, and Drogba smashed home from the penalty spot. Abdoulaye Meite, a future Bolton and West Brom defender, headed the winner, as a team featuring Mathieu Flamini, Habib Beye and Mido triumphed 3-2 on aggregate. It was the tie that many claim persuaded Jose Mourinho to sign Drogba – who had dominated Sami Hyypia in the Anfield leg – and Marseille went on the reach the final, where they lost 2-0 to Valencia. A year on, and Benitez was lifting the European Cup for Liverpool (becoming the only manager in history to have won two European trophies in successive seasons with different club) but this week he will oversee his first match in Europe’s second competition since that final with Valencia in Gothenburg. It was not supposed to be like this.
There is little use bemoaning Liverpool’s presence in the Europa League, 99% of the clubs in the country would kill to be in their position after all. They face Romania’s Unirea Urziceni at Anfield on Thursday night because they deserved to drop out of the Champions League, as presumably did Unirea, who exited a group that included Sevilla, Stuttgart and Rangers. Late slip-ups against Lyon and a poor performance in Florence are the reasons why the Reds are where they are today.While many supporters have tried to put off thinking about their club’s presence amongst the also-rans, nearly men and up-and-comers of European football, the inconvenient truth is about to come home to roost. Seeing as they are in it, Liverpool might as well try and win it, not that that will be an easy task. Juventus, Roma, Valencia, Benfica, Shakhtar Donetsk, Werder Bremen, Galatasaray and Atletico Madrid all block the way on the road to the final in Hamburg. Everton and Fulham are there too, but Liverpool can not look past the peculiar test of Unirea.
The Israeli’s Maccabi Haifa side gave the Reds a real scare in the qualifiers for the 2006/07 Champions League, when only a late Mark Gonzalez goal in the first leg at Anfield saw Liverpool through. The Chilean did not do much for Liverpool, but that strike was crucial. Football is still on its winter break in Romania, which explains why Unirea have been in the north west of England for the best part of a week, training at both Northwich Victoria and Witton Albion. They faced Northwich in a friendly on Monday night – this writer is pretty certain that it was the first time the two clubs had met – and they certainly will not be pushovers for Liverpool. They won 4-1 at Ibrox and beat Sevilla in their Champions League group. The Reds were nowhere near as impressive in theirs.
The noises coming from Benitez in the build-up to the game seem to suggest an appearance for exciting Spanish teenager Dani Pacheco, who has come off the bench in matches against Fiorentina and Wolves this season. Supporters want to see more of the little attacker, who can occupy a range of positions in the attacking third, but is probably at his best when ‘in the hole’ behind the striker. He is slight, small and could get lost amid the hurly burly of Premier League football, but this fixture could be perfect for him. Pacheco has been routinely wowing the crowds at reserve level for around 18 months, and he has been a regular on the first team bench in recent weeks. A start in his best position, playing off a hard-working, strong forward such as Dirk Kuyt would be well worth a watch and the tricky, creative, skilful Catalan could force his way to the forefront of his manager’s plans with a good performance.
He might be just the breath of fresh air that Liverpool need, and the club, players and fans – especially the fans – are sorely in need of one of those.
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