Red's gamble pays off despite Reina woe
Any gambler can confirm everything can fall apart on the turn of an ace. Roy Hodgson will simply be relieved that even when the ace he would have put his mortgage on let him down, everything still came up red.
The Liverpool manager's selection for the visit to Steaua Bucharest was consistent with his policy towards this competition: his stars rested. Only Pepe Reina remained constant.
How typical, then, that it was the Spaniard's uncharacteristic error which almost left Hodgson ruing his risk. And how fortunate that Liverpool still held out for the draw which guaranteed top spot in Group K and ensured the prospect of European football come spring.
In the city where they recorded one of their most famous European triumphs -- the 1984 victory over Steaua's fierce rivals, Dinamo -- this was hardly vintage Liverpool; for much of the opening period they were second-best to their hosts, grateful only that Steaua's menace rather lacked an edge.
For all their possession, Marius Lacatus' side produced just two genuine chances, both wasted by the burly Eric Bicfalvi. The first, a header placed over from six yards, was the more cutting. But barely a minute later, Liverpool led.
Milan Jovanovic, a technically excellent player who has a habit of appearing to perform an impromptu Charleston when he receives possession, received the ball 30 yards from goal. In the absence of a challenge, he laid the ball to Ryan Babel and waited for the cross. From eight yards, his header found the corner.
That the goal meant rather more to him than this competition does to either of these teams -- the Steaua Stadium was far from full -- was clear from his celebration. The man who marked his winner for Serbia against Germany by racing into a ditch obviously does not lack passion.
The chest-thumping theatrics were in full view here, though without the subsequent pratfall. The Liver Bird was kissed, the fans saluted, and his manager left in no doubt that Jovanovic, given the choice, will remain in red beyond January. With a move for Rennes left-winger Sylvain Marveaux mooted in France yesterday, that decision may be out of his hands.
Had Joe Cole, returning from a hamstring injury, converted when presented with just the goalkeeper to beat, Liverpool's evening would have passed comparatively pleasantly; his profligacy, though, encouraged the hosts.
Steaua should have equalised when Bogdan Stancu fired wide.
They might have done so when Bicfalvi skewed a shot past the post just before the interval, or when Reina, occasionally disturbed by a green laser at his eyes, reacted quickly to field Florin Gardos' header.
Such close shaves suggested they warranted the substantial slice of luck which accompanied Eder Bonfim's equaliser, the right-back's speculative header disguised by Romeo Surdu, standing directly in front of the Liverpool goalkeeper, allowing a tame ball to slither from Reina's grasp and between his legs.
Liverpool reacted, Sotirios Kyrgiakos hitting the bar from a Fabio Aurelio corner, as their hosts scented blood, Banel Nicolita driving wide and Stancu skimming the roof of the net. But neither could force a winner. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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