Gerrard keeps Red pride intact
Published 26/02/2010 | 05:00
OPPONENTS clad in bright, brilliant white, a victory at the home of one of Europe's most evocative names. One year on from Liverpool's storming of the Bernabeu, one of the proudest nights in the club's long history, Rafael Benitez's side were confronted with a sharp reminder of the past.
One thing was different, though. The Spaniard did not bring his side to Bucharest in search of glory. This was a trip whose sole purpose was to go some way to restoring a battered reputation.
Liverpool managed that, at least, despite a nervous start and the vim and vigour of Unirea Urziceni. Goals from Javier Mascherano, Ryan Babel and Steven Gerrard -- a strike that made the Liverpool captain the most prolific British player in European competition -- guaranteed their progress, but however far their sojourn in this tournament lasts, there will be no question of taking anyone lightly.
"It is always nice to break records," the Liverpool captain said after recording his 33rd goal in Europe. "I have been working really hard to get back among the goals, but the most important thing was to get through to the next round."
Any lingering optimism among Liverpool's hardy travelling support that Unirea's ultra-cautious display at Anfield was through necessity rather than choice evaporated in the second minute, Sorin Frunza's half-volley dipping on to the roof of Pepe Reina's net. The Romanian champions, 70km from home, had no intention of supplicating before Europe's stumbling giants.
Liverpool replied immediately, Gerrard swivelling on Lucas' pinpoint pass and, as he did at Anfield, making sure Giedrius Arlauskis was fully focused.
Unirea brimmed with purpose. Marius Bilasco foraged relentlessly, while in Razvan Paduretu, the hosts boasted a dead-ball specialist of menacing accuracy. Paduretu's corners bewildered Liverpool. Benitez's side may have returned to their parsimonious best in recent weeks, but their nerves remain easily frayed. Paduretu had already had one range-finder when, after Onofras had called Daniel Agger into a last-ditch sliding tackle as he bore down on goal, he whipped the ball onto the edge of the six-yard box and Bruno Fernandes, the bruising centre-back, rose unchallenged to head the ball home. Cue bedlam, cue dread.
Even when Jamie Carragher crossed deep to the far post, Gerrard's knockdown was scrambled away only as far as Mascherano and the Argentine rocketed a 25-yard shot past Arlauskis, Unirea refused to buckle.
More corners, more panic followed. More through luck than judgment, Liverpool survived and, just before the break, all but settled the tie. Gerrard's free-kick was knocked down by Martin Skrtel and Babel, in one smooth movement, turned and fired home.
Gerrard's goal, capitalising on good work by Yossi Benayoun, added a scarcely warranted gloss. More significantly, it represented the first time his side have scored three goals in a single match since September. But just as he thought his injury worries were easing, Benitez lost Skrtel to a suspected broken.
More scares followed, of course, as pride replaced dreams for Ron Levi's side. There was to be no consolation for the hosts. Liverpool may yet secure theirs. (© Daily Telegraph, London)