Saturday, 27 February 2010

Reds Cruise into Last 16

After a nervy start, the Reds found top form on Thursday night and secured a safe passage into the last 16 of the Europa League thanks to a tremendous performance, earning them an impressive 3-1 victory (4-1 on aggregate).

Liverpool were composed and comfortable on the ball throughout, and didn't panic, even when they fell behind early on. In a hostile environment, and with a horrible pitch to play on, many other big teams would have crumbled under the pressure and crashed out of this competition, however the Reds displayed the character that Rafa Benitez has instilled in them, and displayed some attractive, attacking football to keep them in Europe.

The Reds started out looking to get an early goal to quiet the ferocious home support, with Gerrard testing Arlauskis after only two minutes as the scouse skipper fired in a drive that the keeper dealt with comfortably.

On 18 minutes Liverpool conceded the opening goal from a set piece, causing all the critics to crawl out of the woodwork once again and lay into Rafa Benitez's zonal marking. Amazingly, they seemed to ignore the fact that Liverpool have been defending excellently over recent games, and that Liverpool have had a great defensive record over the years that zonal marking has been installed at Anfield. Once again, facts are ignored in order for a good story to flourish.

Paduretu swung a deep corner into the box, and Fernandes rised unchallenged to head the ball home. It was a good header from the 31 year old, however no Liverpool defender went up to challenge for the ball. Whether you use zonal or man marking, someone must go and head the ball. In this case, Insua was quite clearly at fault, confounding the myth spouted by many useless commentators that you cannot apportion blame in the zonal marking system.

Liverpool responded 10 minutes later in the best way possible. Some neat build up play from the Reds led to Carragher, starting at right back in place of Glen Johnson, sending a deep cross into the back post. Gerrard was there to head the ball back, however he couldn't find Babel in the box. The ball was eventually scrambled clear to the edge of the box, however it wasn't safe as Mascherano met it, and smashed home a wonderful strike from 25 yards out, to score his first goal in European competition. It was a magnificent goal from the combative Argentinian, and richly deserved as he continued to work hard for the rest of the game, in defence and attack.

Rafa Benitez kept faith with the enigmatic Ryan Babel despite his poor showing on Sunday at Manchester City, and started him on the left wing. The Dutchman repaid Rafa's trust with a good game, admittedly against lesser opponents, but we'll take whatever we can get from Babel at the moment.

His best moment came on 39 minutes when he scored a fantastic technical goal. Gerrard whipped a free kick into the box, from the right, which was headed on by Sorin Paraschiv. The ball seemed to travel past Babel, however he managed to pull off a superb piece of skill to take control of the ball, before firing home from close range. He made it look simple, however that was a class goal from Babel, and it's a sign of what he can do if he's given a run of games in the first 11. I expect him to be given a starting berth, most likely on the left, against Blackburn.

The second goal killed off the game as a contest as Unirea now needed 3 goals to progress to the next round, allowing the Reds to express themselves and play an expansive brand of football which hasn't been seen since the start of the season, when Liverpool put 6 past Hull at Anfield.

Unirea had an opportunity to score after only 3 minutes of the second half, as a ball was sent into the box from the left by Bordeanu. An attacker contested for the ball with Insua before it fell to a Unirea striker, who shot into the side netting. It was a disappointing effort which he should have done better with.

It was a record breaking night for Steven Gerrard as he scored his 33rd goal in European compeititon, making him the top British goalscorer in Europe. His record breaking goal came after 57 minutes. Babel sprinted down the left wing and into space, before passing sqaure to Lucas. The ever improving Brazilian slotted a ball through to Benayoun, who was starting for the first time since the 13th January. Benayoun's tricky run into the box ended when he found Gerrard with a neat pass. The skipper smashed a shot home off the keeper to round off a brillaint victory for the men in red.

Liverpool were in control for the rest of the game, however the evening was soured slightly as Martin Skrtel broke a metatarsal in his right foot as he smashed into a tough tackle. He's expected to be out for around 6 weeks, and it seems like the injuries will just never stop at Anfield.

Bilasco forced Reina into a fantastic stop from close range, with 5 minutes left, after he had controlled a cross from the left, however even if he had scored it would have been nothing more than a consolation.

Liverpool now head to France to face Lille in the next round. It's a good draw for the Reds as France isn't too far to travel and Lille are opposition that Liverpool should be favourties against. If they show the same levels of commitment and desire as they did against Unirea then they should progress with ease.


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