Kelly Kyrgiakos Agger Konchesky
Maxi Cole Babel
Ngog 55' (pen) 90+1'
Scoring four should be cause for a Mardi Gras-esque celebration, complete with nudity and dancing in the streets, considering Liverpool's goal return so far this season. But that resounding result is also resoundingly flattering, and it's difficult to decipher its value with two fortunate goals and two in the final ten minutes with the game seemingly in the bag. Not to mention how many changes Liverpool made to the starting XI or that Steaua hadn't won any of their last 25 matches in European competition if we're not counting qualifying stages.
It was a dream start thanks to some magnanimous charity from the visitors, with Abrudan's soft back pass allowing Cole to sneak in and score his first competitive goal for the club within 26 seconds. An early strike seemed just the prescription for Liverpool's recent maladies, but the sides were level little more than ten minutes later. Steaua's equalizer came against the run of play and right down the middle of the pitch: center-back Gerardo ran around Ngog, Spearing slipped to leave Stancu open, and the midfielder's throughball dissected a flat-footed Kyrgiakos and retreating Kelly, leaving Tanase to cleverly chip past Reina.
Unsurprisingly, the goal knocked Liverpool back, and the home side struggled to match the Romanians for the rest of the half. Babel, Cole, and Maxi appeared as if they were in competition to see who shoot straight at the keeper and/or give the ball away the most times. Spearing played in the style of a stray dog with the ball covered in raw hamburger meat. Liverpool were disjointed, impotent, and on the back foot for far too much in the first 45 minutes, and those are all familiar attributes no matter the XI on the field.
But the second half, like so often this season, was completely different – the best Liverpool's looked this season. But an unfamiliar line-up needing time (and a manager's revised instructions) to find its way isn't all that surprising. Charging in the direction of the Kop, Liverpool pegged Steaua back from the post-interval whistle. It only took the home side ten minutes to go back in front, thanks to some Greek-on-Greek crime as striker Kapetanos pushed Kyrgiakos on a corner, with Ngog nonchalantly converting the spot kick.
You can't say Liverpool were comfortable – no team is ever comfortable with a one-goal margin, especially this one – but Steaua rarely looked like getting back in the game, and more goals finally came in the final ten minutes. Like against Birmingham (and Trabzonspor and City...) Hodgson waited until after the 75th minute to make changes, but the change turned out to be inspired. Lucas came on for Babel in what appeared to be a defensive move, but the Brazilian ended up rifling a wonderful goal in from 25 yards with his second touch of the game. It was an absolute bullet the likes of which Gerrard would be proud of, and a small reminder that the kid does pack shooting boots every now and then. If only he could deliver similar more often...
Ngog added the requisite gloss in injury time, showing yet another glimpse of that strength and finishing ability that has many defending his potential, while Pacheco and Eccleston received cameos, on for Maxi and Cole respectively. And while it's a heartening win considering the changes and first-half display, there's not a lot to be learned because of the "makeshift" lineup and the opposition's second-half tenacity.
The positives are clear – confidence boosts for Cole, Ngog and Lucas, Meireles' full debut, and Maxi's vast improvement in the second half. Youth was on display in Ngog, Kelly, Spearing, and sub appearances for Pacheco and Eccleston, and that bodes well for the future. Four goals is always a positive, no matter the opposition or when they're scored; that's twice as many goals as the team's scored in its four Premier League matches this season. And for all of Liverpool first-half impotence, Reina could have parked a deck chair in the goalmouth after Steaua's equalizer.
But whether Liverpool will be able to build on this display, especially in time for Sunday's match – with a starting line-up that will probably look a lot more like last Sunday's than today's – remains to be seen. The morale boost surely doesn't hurt, but when eight changes were made for this match, it's tough to divine what it augurs for the league campaign. Let's hope, with man-of-the-match Cole and Meireles in the line-up (both soon to be first-team regulars), it portends Hodgson's team beginning to come together.