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restless night at anfield

AT least the cliches can be dispensed with. This was far from being one of those trademark European glory nights at Anfield, but there was a victory for Liverpool to celebrate, albeit one that owed a great deal more to endeavour than it did to inspiration.

A win and a clean sheet are all that Rafael Benitez demands of his players in the home leg of any tie and thanks to a late goal from David Ngog, that was exactly what his team achieved against the Romanian champions.

The tie had a certain curiosity value in terms of how Liverpool would adapt to life in the second tier of European football. The Europa League is in its first season, but the indications are that its greatest impact -- in its formative years at least -- will be to act as a barometer of how far the mighty have fallen.

Even Benitez had conceded that only once Liverpool's match against Unirea Urziceni had started would he know how his players would react to the transition from members of the European elite to also-rans.

With no Champions League theme tune to serenade them, an unfamiliar Thursday evening kick-off, an extra pair of match officials and the potentially demoralising psychological effect of knowing that this was not the place they wanted to be, there were fears that Liverpool would suffer a collective hangover.

In the event, such concerns were not realised, at least not in the early stages. No more than 25 seconds had elapsed when Steven Gerrard brought a flying save out of Giedrius Arlauskis, the Unirea goalkeeper. The Liverpool captain rarely needs to be coaxed into giving his best, but on a night when it could have been easy for a top-class player to be downhearted by the downgrade in standards, Gerrard had the extra incentive of knowing that a single goal would make him the highest-scoring British player in European club competition.



plagued

However, even against opponents of such limited pedigree, there were times when Liverpool's lack of cutting edge in attacking areas, a problem that has plagued them throughout the season, resulted in promising moves breaking down when it seemed they would result in something tangible.

Life without the injured Fernando Torres was always going to be tough and with Ngog, a player still in the developmental stage of his career, to lead the line, Benitez's side can be predictable and lack guile. Such limitations were the main reason why Liverpool made an early exit from the Champions League and, almost three months and a largely uneventful transfer window later, the same fault lines are still evident.

Far too often the onus is on Gerrard to create or score, sometimes both, a responsibility that seems more like an onerous burden with every passing game.

Tellingly, when the half-time whistle was blown, Gerrard was one of only two Liverpool players to have tested the goalkeeper, the other being Dirk Kuyt. The industry may have been there, but the invention and the incision were not, to the obvious displeasure of the near-capacity crowd.

Tedium is not a word often associated with European nights at Anfield, but the first half had been so bereft of such qualities that the polite ripple of applause Liverpool were afforded as they trooped off was generous in the extreme.



despondency

The Europa League may not be Liverpool's highest priority for the remainder of the season, but rediscovering a semblance of their best form is vital and Unirea were ordinary enough to be taken advantage of. That Benitez's side seemed incapable of doing so only added to the air of despondency.

At one stage during the Spaniard's tenure, it used to be that a packed defence could blunt Liverpool's attack; now it is seemingly any defence of reasonable organisation, such is their paucity of creativity in the final third.

It was no surprise to see Ryan Babel introduced as a substitute for the wholly ineffective Albert Riera and Liverpool reduced to taking pot shots from distance. The growing sense of desperation on the pitch was mirrored in the stands, the restlessness increasing with the breakdown of a steady succession of forays forward.

It is at such times when the acquisition of Alberto Aquilani seems flawed in the extreme. Bought to add precision and panache in the opposition half, the Italian still appears some way short of the standard required. Unirea were the latest to benefit from his shortcomings until Benitez decided to bring the former Roma man's night to a premature end, replacing him with promising reserve-team player, Daniel Pacheco.

It was to prove an inspired change, Pacheco playing a crucial role in creating Liverpool's winning goal.

The diminutive Spaniard is known more for his trickery than his aerial prowess, but it was his header from Babel's cross in the 81st minute that gave Ngog an opportunity to score that he was never likely to pass up. It had been laborious in the extreme, but Liverpool had their goal and a priceless lead to take into the second leg.


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