Job done, first leg advantage secured, but Liverpool’s opening foray into Europa League life was at times as difficult to watch as it was frustrating.
The ball pinged from left to right in front of the Unirea Urziceni goal so often last night that those sitting on the Kop must have thought they were at Centre Court at Wimbledon. Left, right, left, right it went – as strictly and regimented as a soldier troupe – but the Reds were continually unable to penetrate the thick wall of white Romanian shirts that stood in front of goal. Credit to Unirea, they were impressively organised by Israeli boss Ronny Levy, who used exactly the same gameplan when his Maccabi Haifa side visited Anfield for a Champions League qualifier in 2006. Back then a late Liverpool goal won the game, and history was to repeat itself, but not before some inspired substitutions from Rafael Benitez.
Albert Riera and Alberto Aquilani had had forgettable nights – sadly the latest in a series of them for the expensive Italian – but it still took a couple of leaps of faith from Benitez for him to replace the duo with Ryan Babel and Dani Pacheco. If last night’s match could be compared to a footballer, then it would be the Dutchman Babel. So often the build-up suggested much, but so often it delivered little. So often the Anfield crowd expected something wonderful to happen, but so often they were disappointed. That it was Babel who helped relieve those frustrations was an ironic twist on a night that may well be looked back upon as a crucial one in Liverpool’s season. It might be the first step towards a trophy-winning campaign after all, and it could also have seen the birth of a new Liverpool crowd favourite.
There aren’t many Liverpool footballers who get their name chanted by the Kop in just their third substitute appearance for the club, and there are fewer still who are just 19 years old and still making their way in the English game. Yet there it was last night, young Catalan Pacheco had barely been on the pitch a couple of minutes before his name was being bellowed out around the ground – a satisfyingly full ground, despite ‘expert’ predictions of supporters turning their backs on the Europa League. In this age of club TV channels and video highlights available on a variety of websites, reserve level isn’t as shrouded in as much mystery as it used to be, and many supporters are well aware of the youngster’s multitude of skills, and they want to see more of them. Pacheco diverted Babel’s cross into the path of David Ngog to win the game for Liverpool, a combination of two substitutes that led to a goal that nearly lifted the roof off a ground that had become as frustrated as at times this season.
Unirea had parked the bus, put the handbrake on and put bars on the windows, but they were fully expected to do that. Liverpool were unfortunately lacking in the ingenuity and creativity to break them down, a similar failing which saw them struggle in their home Champions League matches. Had the Reds scored early on – and there wouldn’t have been many quicker goals in Anfield history had Steven Gerrard finished off an excellent move within 30 seconds of kick off – then it would have been a hugely different game. The longer Liverpool went without scoring, the more difficult that the night would become, and in the end the Reds will just be grateful for Ngog giving them a first-leg lead. It’s an advantage that they should build on in Romania.
Before that, there is more pressing Premier League business to take care of, and a huge clash at Eastlands on Sunday afternoon. Manchester City represent the strongest of Liverpool’s challengers for a top-four spot, and a win for either would give an advantage in a race that has become as unpredictable as any in which the Reds have been involved in recent seasons.
City have been hit and miss under Roberto Mancini, but have a squad as strong as any in the division, and will go into the clash as favourites. It is up to Liverpool – and particularly the experienced players within their team – to turn the tables from last night and now be the ones who are getting in the faces of the home side. Do that, and they’ll be confident that they could land a huge blow in the race for Champions League football next season. A win would turn midweek frustration into weekend elation.