Kelly Kyrgiakos Wilson Aurelio
Pacheco Poulsen Shelvey Jovanovic
For 60 minutes, it was an archetypal Hodgson performance, a poor copy of Fulham in last year's Europa League. Liverpool were living on a knife's edge, with Steaua bossing possession and creating chances, yet the away side were in front. Then Reina committed a howler that put the Arsenal own goal to shame for the inevitable equalizer. But, as I'm sure the manager will remind us in his post-match conference, a draw was always enough for qualification. The most uninspiring qualification in history.
Pharmacists around the world will prescribe DVDs of this match for insomnia in lieu of Ambien. Criticizing individual players, or even the tactics, is marginally unfair because the majority of the starting XI had seen so little time this season, but that was still a fairly painful spectacle.
Steaua controlled the game for long stretches – as the commentators on GolTV frequently pointed out, 'absorb but don't concede' was today's mantra – but Liverpool had the lead at the interval thanks to an excellent counter attack from Babel and Jovanovic. The out-of-favor Serbian's strong run led to Babel with the ball in space on the right. Checking onto his left foot, the striker's cross found Jovanovic, who continued his run into the box, with the header perfectly placed into the bottom corner.
Liverpool could have scored a second seven minutes later, the side's only other chance of the half, but Cole clumsily stood on the ball after Babel's pass put him through. Meanwhile, Steaua had opportunities of their own: an open Bicfalvi headed over in the 19th and Stancu shanked a six-yard shot wide after beating Kyrgiakos to a long ball in the 44th. Play continued in the same vein in the second half, aided by Steaua bringing on Angelov for Bicfalvi, as Gerardo Alves put another free header too close to Reina from a short corner five minutes after the interval.
And then disaster struck. Angelov's cross deflected to an open Bonfim, who headed at Reina from 12 yards out. But obscured by Stancu (who was played onside by Wilson attempting to close down Angelov), Reina made an utter hash of it, allowing the ball to squirm between his legs and just over the goal line. An auspicious captaincy debut for an undoubtedly talented goalkeeper. As I wrote after the Arsenal match, he'll assuredly make up for it with saves in the future.
From there, Liverpool had one more chance at a winner, with Kyrgiakos heading a corner onto the crossbar in the 66th, and Hodgson sent on both Ngog and Eccleston looking to add pace to Liverpool's attack, but neither side deserved the victory.
Steaua created 10 shots to Liverpool's three. The home side had 10 corners to Liverpool's four; the margin was eight corners to one at half time. But if not for a regrettable, out of the ordinary mistake, Liverpool would have held on for the win, and Steaua would have been hard-pressed to complain having been unable to take the chances they were presented with.
No player really stood out today. Jovanovic faded after his goal, replaced by Eccleston with 10 minutes to play. Babel, whose task was utterly thankless today, was probably the best of the lot, setting up the goal and denied a second assist by Joe Cole's lack of match fitness. The less said about the returning Cole, the better. Pacheco struggled on the right, often drifting centrally to little effect and providing little cover to a consistently under threat Martin Kelly. Shelvey did adequately in a deeper role, often watching the ball fly over his head and with Poulsen chasing play like a puppy after a tennis ball. Wilson had promising moments combined with some hands over face frights, as we'd expect from most inexperienced youngsters.
Yes, it's job done, qualification assured with a game to play, but it was again difficult viewing. We can't forget how rarely many of these players have featured this season, but it's still yet more disappointing, embarrassing, stale football. It was nice to see players like Wilson, Shelvey, and Pacheco, and I still hope to see them again in the future despite the overall team performance. At least, because of the result, they can't be sent back into purgatory as after Northampton.
But once again, we're left with a sour taste in our mouths, wondering if Liverpool will ever lose the 'sit back, try not to concede, eventually concede' tactics Hodgson's used in almost every away match.