Ngog to rescue for Liverpool
Striker's late header finally cracks Romanian resistance to spare Benitez's blushes
How the mighty fall. As Liverpool prepared for their Champions League trip to Real Madrid this time last year, Rafael Benitez was in charge of arguably the most feared side in Europe.
Inter Milan, Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona and Juventus had all crumbled as 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and 'Zadok the Priest' blared over the tannoy at Anfield.
Such an idea has become almost unthinkable.
Cast into the wilderness of the Europa League, Handel replaced by Zveig, their reputation in tatters, Liverpool's supporters could be forgiven for thinking they had reached their nadir.
Until David Ngog's late intervention to break the determined resistance of a team cast as Romanian no-hopers, they may have feared things could only get worse, that this was what the future held. That this is where Liverpool, the stumbling giants, now belong.
That Liverpool possess the quality to warrant a place among the princes, not the paupers, cannot be in question. Fernando Torres, the jewel in the crown, may have been missing here, but a handful of his team-mates, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, Pepe Reina are, indisputably, Champions League players.
The question that remains, the doubt that nags, is that much of the rest of Benitez's squad may have found their level.
Gerrard bullishly predicted that Liverpool will have more joy away from home against their modest opponents. "They were very stubborn but we expected that. You could say maybe we needed to be a bit more clinical, but I think we'll get more joy away from home," he said. "But we were patient and the goal came. They're going to have to come out and try and beat us in the second leg."
It took fewer than 60 seconds for the hosts to find a way through, Dirk Kuyt and Fabio Aurelio combining to tee up Gerrard, the Liverpool captain's shot venomous enough to ascertain that Giedrius Arlauskis, the Unirea goalkeeper, was warmed up.
The Kop roared, scenting blood, but the feeding frenzy never came. Unirea, content to sit on the edge of their own penalty box for much of the evening, more than lived up to Benitez's promise that they would provide dour, doughty opposition.
The Romanian side had two shots, neither particularly worthy of note, in the opening period, one from a Sorin Frunza free-kick which trickled to an otherwise unemployed Reina, and a 40-yard effort from Marius Onofras, wide on the right, clearly trying to channel the spirit of Nayim.
It did not work. Everything else Unirea set out to do, though, did. It is a peculiarity of the away goals rule that conceding away from home is no great disaster, but the visitors had clearly done their homework.
There are but a handful of topics to revise with Liverpool. How to man-mark Gerrard, how to stop Reina's distribution kick-starting counter-attacks, and how to sap Benitez's side's confidence.
All three were passed with flying colours, and that Liverpool lacked the craft to crack the edifice they were presented with, to shed their shackles, says much about their travails this season.
As ever, their failure to score an early goal, the only tonic which calms nerves frayed after a season of embarrassment and misadventure, played on their minds.
Kuyt went close, firing across the box, while Gerrard headed wide following the best passage of play in the opening spell, Alberto Aquilani conducting the orchestra, his passing stretching Unirea, creating space for the frustrating Albert Riera, whose cross found his captain charging into the area.
That, aside from one sharp turn and shot from Ngog, was that.
Liverpool's poise and guile deserted them, their territorial advantage all but complete, but their threat dampened to hopeful long-shots and the flurry of set-pieces from the deflections that ensued. The 40,000 present Anfield sat subdued, but definitely not surprised.
Such shortcomings have hamstrung Liverpool for much of the campaign. Teams who travel to Old Trafford, or the Emirates, or Stamford Bridge and, increasingly, Eastlands and White Hart Lane intent only on defending, they are simply holding back the tide.
At Anfield, there is no reason a well-drilled, focused outfit cannot stay afloat for as long as they like.
Indeed, for much of the second period, too, Unirea looked more comfortable still. Gerrard, doing his best to grasp the game by the scruff of the neck, headed limply wide, this time from a Carragher cross.
Many inside Anfield, though, were starting to lose hope when Ryan Babel's deep cross picked out the young striker Dani Pacheco, who teed up Ngog from close range. Embarrassment averted. Just. (© Daily Telegraph, London)