Cole burns bright as stylish Liverpool see off stubborn Romanians
St Bucharest 1
JOE COLE departed to a standing ovation here last night, Liverpool fans saluting his skill, imagination and eye for goal. In the absence of some big names, Liverpool needed a big performance from Cole and he delivered.
The one disappointment was that only 25,605 were present to witness Cole's excellence.
It was not solely the expert way he scored in the first minute. Cole's use of the ball was consistently intelligent, giving Liverpool a real threat in the final third.
Although Cristian Tanase soon equalised, Liverpool dominated the second half. David Ngog swept in a penalty, Lucas fired in a majestic third before Ngog gave the scoreline a slightly cruel look.
Liverpool had enjoyed a perfect starts, Cole striking after only 26 seconds. When Steaua's centre-half, Octavian Abrudan, dithered in possession, Cole pounced, nicking the ball and driving it emphatically past Ciprian Tatarusanu. It was his first goal since a back-heel at Old Trafford for Chelsea on April 3.
Sitting up in the directors' box were Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, whom Hodgson had rested with Sunday's trip to Old Trafford in mind. With Jamie Carragher and Glen Johnson starting on the bench Liverpool's line-up was clearly a gamble by Hodgson.
Hodgson clearly understands the domestic problems wrought by membership of the Thursday Night Club this season, a point he made in his programme notes by stressing he would be rotating heavily and using the Europa League to assess some of the "younger'' players.
Liverpool fans relish their European adventures, even on the B-roads of the Continent. The Kop was almost full but the Anfield Road End had vast swathes of unoccupied red seats. Hodgson had indicated Torres and Gerrard would be rested so some will have stayed away despite the club lowering ticket prices.
As Steaua brushed off their poor start, Liverpool also missed Carragher's organisational abilities.
After 13 minutes, Steaua went through the gears, a rapier thrust going through Liverpool. Geraldo Alves slid the ball through to the excellent Bogdan Stancu, who accelerated its passage down the inside-left corridor.
Tanase had stolen a march on Sotirios Kyrgiakos, darting ahead of the Greek and lifting the ball expertly over Pepe Reina.
Stunned, Liverpool took 10 minutes to regain their belief. During that worrying period, Steaua continued to break forward, Eric Bicfalvi directing operations from deep midfield.
The Romanians were very much in the image of their coach, Ilie Dumitrescu, such an elegant attacking midfielder during his Tottenham Hotspur pomp. A belief in their technique and tactics suffused Steaua, who sought out any hint of vulnerability in Liverpool's back-line.
When Daniel Agger and Paul Konchesky got in a mix-up on the left, Mihai Radut darted through but Liverpool slammed the door shut.
Liverpool flickered with promise as the half gained in length. Maxi Rodriguez, working the right flank, spirited the ball past Iasmin Latovlevici but again the move came to nothing. Liverpool began shooting from range but to no avail. When Abrudan fouled Rodriguez, Konchesky drove a left-footed free-kick well wide.
The feeling that Liverpool had weathered the Steaua storm was confirmed 10 minutes after the break. Teams have been warned this season that referees in Europe will be particularly strong on pushing and shirt-pulling in the box. The Romanians had clearly not been paying attention.
As a Rodriguez corner curled in, Pantelis Kapetanos tugged Kyrgiakos and the Spanish referee, Cesar Fernandez, did not hesitate.
The offence was so blatant, committed so close to Fernandez that he could hardly miss it. The referee pointed to the spot and Ngog stayed calm as he stroked the ball low to Tatarusanu's right.
Liverpool looked far more assertive in the second period. Raul Meireles was stationed alongside Spearing in the anchoring roles but his strength lies in getting forward, a capability he showed with a meaty volley that Tatarusanu repelled. Hodgson's longer-term intention is for Christian Poulsen to hold while Meireles pushes on.
Steaua should have equalised with 15 minutes remaining. Tanase nutmegged Kyrgiakos but his shot was too weak to worry Reina. Hodgson tweaked his team, removing Babel, pushing Meireles up behind Ngog and sending on Lucas to patrol midfield.
To Anfield's surprise and delight, it was the Brazilian who made it 3-1, cracking a magnificent 25-yarder past Tatarusanu, a goal so unexpected from a player hardly noted for wonder-strikes that Anfield's announcer almost gasped when noting the moment.
Ngog made it 4-1 in injury time with a dribble and shot as Liverpool finished in style. (©Daily Telegraph, London)