February 25th 2009, and Yossi Benayoun’s late header had Liverpool supporters leaping around the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in celebration of one of the club’s greatest ever European away wins. February 25th 2010, and those same fans are in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, about to watch the Reds take on a team who have borrowed a ground for the night seeing as their 7,000 capacity Tineretului Stadium is too small. Unirea Urziceni are no Real Madrid, this was no grand, Champions League-style occasion, but it’s what Liverpool have been downgraded to for the remainder of this season. To the credit of manager Rafael Benitez, his often criticised players and their long suffering fans they responded to the task manfully – albeit eventually.
It was a horrible night in Bucharest as the rain lashed down and the watching Fernando Torres – an unused substitute – would have been forgiven for not wanting to come on to a pitch that could be best described as ‘lively.’ A rare – by recent standards – defensive lapse allowed Unirea to take a morale-boosting lead, causing rent-a-quote pundits countrywide to dust off that old favourite, the ‘zonal marking debate’ again, despite the fact that Liverpool had only conceded two goals from set pieces in the last three months. A recovery was to take place though, and it started from the most unlikely of sources.
In truth the result of the tie wasn’t ever in doubt once Javier Mascherano’s piercing, crisp – dare we say Xabi Alonso-esque? – drive found the back of the Unirea net to give the Reds that ever crucial away goal. It was a stunning, welcome and deserved strike from the Argentina captain, who has played a more prominent role than most in Liverpool’s recent reinvention from a team that were easy to beat into a more solid, rounded unit. If he can make those sort of goals a more regular facet of his game then he could easily become one of the most celebrated midfielders in the club’s illustrious history. Still only 25, he’s already a firm favourite on the terraces, and after a shaky start to the season – where both persistent rumours linking him to Barcelona and his country’s struggles to reach the World Cup appeared to play on his mind – he’s recovered to get back on the road to Liverpool midfield greatness.
One man who’s been a long-standing member of that group is Steven Gerrard, and the Reds skipper – and next week’s England captain due to John Terry’s alleged fiasco and Rio Ferdinand’s niggling back muscles – appears to be slowly getting back to his very best after a season in which he’s failed to hit as many heights as usual. Still known worldwide as the man who makes Liverpool tick – there was never a white Unirea shirt less than five yards away from him in either leg – Gerrard became the highest scoring British player for an English club in European football (surpassing Alan Shearer’s 32) with his second half strike, but it was his leadership and will-to-win that shone through brightest. Liverpool want to end a forgettable season by winning this Europa League, and nobody wants to win it more than Gerrard.
Liverpool play Lille next and on this evidence, Gerrard will be helped in his goal by Ryan Babel, the often frustrating Dutchman who has – according to the man himself – turned over a new leaf in a bid to resurrect his Liverpool career. Quite how much of that new found motivation is based upon a desire to be part of Holland’s World Cup plans is unclear, but if that is the sole reason behind a sudden return to form then why should Liverpool complain? If Babel can carry on scoring goals of the quality he produced in the closing stages of the first half in Romania then Reds supporters will be delighted. His close control and quicksilver finish was a joy to behold, and yet another benchmark has been set by the talented Dutchman. Supporters know how good he can be, and the challenge is to maintain his form.
The one downside from a good European night was an injury to Martin Skrtel which makes him a doubt for the remainder of the season, and certainly for Sunday’s home game with Blackburn, a clash that simply has to be won if the challenge for a top four place is to gather momentum. On 28th February 2009 Liverpool lost 2-0 at Middlesbrough. One year on they’ll want a much happier anniversary.
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