Carragher Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Riera
Hey, a late winner! It’s been a while. And the substitutions were the key! Again, that’s something new and nice for a change.
It’s also been a while since a team parked the bus against Liverpool. Really, it’s only happened in Europe: twice against Debrecen and today – and it wasn't just the scoreline that was the same. Maybe continental sides haven’t gotten the memo on Liverpool’s weaknesses.
And it was basically the strongest team Liverpool could have named, disregarding the frequent debate over Babel, who again made his impact off the bench. With Carragher right of the Skrtel/Agger pairing, it was the defense we’ll probably see for the next few league matches, with Aurelio finally making his way back into the squad.
Liverpool must have had at least two-thirds of the possession in the first half, with Unirea’s lone striker Bilasco the only player to spend more than five minutes on the other side of the pitch. But an excellent opportunity within 30 seconds – Aurelio teeing up Kuyt on the edge of the box, whose throughball let Gerrard in, only for keeper Aurlauskis to make an excellent save – soon turned into some dire ‘pass around the box prodding for some sort of opening, only to eventually give it away.’
Liverpool had chances, but mostly struggled to break down an exceptionally-packed final third. Kuyt’s narrow shot was pushed around the post in the 11th, Gerrard spurned a difficult free header from Aquilani’s cross in the 19th, and Liverpool were consistently winning corners and deep throws. The team even upped the tempo around the half-hour mark, but it resulted in multiple shots from distance deflected wide, a clever Ngog chest-and-turn inches past the far post, and Gerrard nearly through, only to be caught by Bruno Fernandes (who saw yellow with other defenders nearby). Breaking down the crowded box, led by the impressive Fernandes, proved too much to ask in the first 45.
And the second half seemed at an even slower tempo than the first. It took seven minutes for an attempt at goal, with Gerrard heading Carragher’s cross wide, reminiscent of his first chance. Another excellent save by Arlauskis, on Aurelio’s low shot from outside the box, came ten minutes later, right before Babel replaced the ineffective Riera.
It took Liverpool some time to actually raise their game, with the usual breakdowns in the final third complemented by Babel running into dead ends. But a five-minute spell of pressure around the 70th minute – with Ngog’s shot deflected just wide, Skrtel heading Aurelio’s corner over, Ngog flicking a header wide, and Gerrard’s stabbed effort palmed away – before Pacheco came on for the anonymous Aquilani finally saw Liverpool mount enough pressure to get a winner.
It’s little surprise that Liverpool’s two most problematic players – Riera and Aquilani – were those with the least match fitness. Chances weren’t coming for lack of effort: it was a combination of a resilient and packed defense and Liverpool’s inability to spark something special.
But in the 81st minute, the substitutes sparked something special. Babel beat a man to deliver a lofted right-footed cross from the left, finding Pacheco (who played on the right, with Kuyt central and Gerrard in midfield) to center for an on-rushing Ngog. Finally.
Liverpool could have made it a much-better two-goal lead minutes later, only to see Gerrard shoot inches wide after some lovely close control. But the referee seemed intent on keeping Unirea close, ignoring a blatant foul by Brandan on Mascherano just outside the box, which would have been a second yellow sending off, before giving the away side a few questionable free kicks which allowed them to put a marginal amount of pressure on a side susceptible to late goals. But Reina continued to have nothing to do (I’m fairly sure his lone “save” came on a speculative effort which looked to be going wide anyway), and now Liverpool takes a one-goal lead to Romania.
It’s obviously not an ideal situation – Liverpool’s been awful on the road in the league and conceded against both Lyon and Fiorentina in Europe (scoring just twice in three away games) – but it’s better than 0-0. I was preparing to review a frustrating scoreless draw by the 70th minute, and I still would have written that I expected Liverpool to advance. A settled defense, which Benitez appears to want by unexpectedly playing the big guns today, will go a long way towards being able to keep a clean sheet. Liverpool has missed Aurelio’s free kicks, experience, and cool head, and Carragher even did well going forward, although I was surprised to see Kelly not even make the bench.
As per usual, Liverpool set out to control the game, which they did. But “controlling the game” against Romanian opposition (even if they’re decent – having beaten Rangers and Sevilla and tallying more group stage points than Liverpool – the stereotype persists) at Anfield in a competition Liverpool’s disappointed to be in almost didn’t work.
We’ve seen that Benitez wants to restore confidence with a firm defense, going back to the basics. It’s probably a smart tactic given injuries and the amount of stupid and unlucky goals Liverpool conceded earlier in the season. Both Benayoun and Torres could have made a massive difference today. That the tactics might have mistaken is arguable – Liverpool were 10 minutes away from being stifled – but it worked in the end. And Unirea is going to have to come out of their shell in the next meeting.
Special mention goes out to both Babel and Pacheco, who offered different options off the bench and played key parts in the winner. That’s Babel’s second lofted cross which won a game this season (Torres’ strike against West Ham), while the diminutive Pacheco did well to provide the assist in a congested box (guess he's getting game time, huh?). And that the criticized Ngog tallied the goal seems warranted.
Liverpool has the advantage going to Bucharest and returned to winning ways after the disappointment against Arsenal. That’s all that matters.