Saturday, 4 December 2010

Liverpool stumble past Steaua and into the next round

Liverpool secured a place in the next stage of the Europa League on Thursday after claiming a 1-1 draw against Steaua Bucharest in Romania. A clever Milan Jovanovic header had given the Reds the lead against the run of play midway through the first half, however the hosts grabbed an equaliser thanks to a terrible mistake from Pepe Reina. Hodgson's side then hung on for a crucial point that takes us top of Group K with nine points, three points ahead of our opponents who now lie in second place.

Pepe Reina was the only survivor from Sunday's clash with Tottenham Hotspur as the Spanish keeper captained Liverpool's inexperienced side in the absence of the injured Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Youngsters Martin Kelly, Danny Wilson, Jonjo Shelvey and Dani Pacheco were all given a chance to impress as Roy rested senior stars ahead of Aston Villa's visit to Anfield on Monday night.

The game got off to a scrappy side, with Steaua enjoying most of the possession yet failing to seriously pressurise the visitors. The first real opportunity arrived after 17 minutes when the unmarked Bicfalvi somehow managed to head Surdu's cross over the bar from close range.

It was terrible defending from Liverpool, but the finish was even worse as the Romanian's squandered a great chance to grab the early initiative. Milan Jovanovic and Ryan Babel superbly combined to make the home side pay only three minutes later.

The Serbian international started the move with a neat pass out to Babel on the right wing, before the Dutchman excellently cut back onto his left foot and clipped the ball brilliantly in for Jovanovic to cutely head into the corner.

After finally allowing him to play in his preferred role as a striker Roy Hodgson was witnessing a promising and energetic performance from the enigmatic Babel. On 26 minutes he latched on to an error from the hosts and broke free swiftly down the left hand side.

He centred the ball well for the unmarked Cole however the former Chelsea man's touch let him down as he lost the ball when well placed. The ball eventually broke for Pacheco but he could only drag the ball wide from the edge of the box. Unfortunately that summed up Joe Cole's disappointing evening as he struggled to find fitness and form after a over a month on the sidelines.

Babel continued to cause problems for Steaua's defence as he earned us a corner just past the half hour mark. It came to nothing though as Shelvey disappointingly hit the keeper's attempted clearance wide of goal from 22 yards.

Another defensive error from the Reds' backline gave the home side a great chance to claim a crucial equaliser on the stroke of halftime. Stancu battled with Kyrgiakos in the air and unusually beat the Greek to the ball before running through on goal. Unbelievably he stabbed wide of Reina's goal from a mere six yards out.

Liverpool had had a massive let off and knew that they had to improve defensively in the second half if they were to hold on to their slender advantage. Unfortunately that didn't happen as Steaua Bucharest started the second period on the front foot and Hodgson's side reverted to type by sitting back deeper and deeper.

Steaua added to their numerous squandered chances five minutes into the second half when Alves wastefully headed Tanase's cross straight at Reina for the Liverpool keeper to make a comfortable stop. Latovlevici then spanked a 30-yard free kick into row z to the frustration of the 20,000 Romanians supporters inside the ground.

Nicolita's attempted cross caused Reina problems after it took a wicked deflection and threatened to drop in under the keeper's bar. The stand-in skipper recovered well to push the ball over the bar, however the home side didn't have to wait long for the equaliser to arrive.

On the hour mark Eder Bonfim's weak header inside the box appeared to have no chance of beating Liverpool's well-respected goalkeeper Pepe Reina. However, a howler from Reina allowed the ball to slip through his legs and creep over the goalline to gift a vital goal to Steaua.

Reina, who had also looked uncharacteristically out of form against Spurs, showed his disappointment by smashing the ball up in the air, however his team-mates almost removed that anguish only five minutes later when the imperious Sotirios Kyrgiakos rose magnificently to head Aurelio's inviting corner agonisingly against the cross bar.

That was our only real opening throughout the second half as Hodgson employed his usual tactics away from home and asked his troops to sit back deep and absorb pressure from the hosts. Fortunately Steaua lacked the creative ability needed to break down our defence and couldn't trouble Reina regularly.

With 13 minutes remaining a whipped effort from the lively Stancu dipped just over Reina's far post before Steaua Bucharest captain Cristian Tanase fired a strike in from distance, but Reina got down well to deny the versatile midfielder.

Although this match will hardly be remembered as a classic a 1-1 draw is good enough to secure progression to the next round of Europe's secondary club competition. When Liverpool were drew against Steaua Bucharest, Utrecht and Napoli in Group K many suggested the Reds would struggle.

However, Liverpool's squad players and youngsters have proven the critics wrong and have guaranteed qualification with a game to spare. The performance was by no means spectacular, but Hodgson's conservative tactics were understandable and acceptable away from home in Europe.

A problem arises though when Hodgson uses these same defensive tactics away from home against sides we should be putting to the sword in the League and occasionally at Anfield as well. Roy must change to a more positive approach in domestic football and only use his current style of play in tough European away matches.

Liverpool can now forget about Europe until after Christmas. We must now concentrate on racking up as many points as possible from the upcoming League fixtures so that Liverpool can race back up the table.

Otherwise Liverpool fans may have to suffer another season of stagnation and Hodgson may be out of a job.


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