The fact that a Liverpool side absent of its most senior players for the most part has managed to qualify so comfortably for this Europa League group stage, is perhaps more a reflection on the strength of the competition.
However, on the positive, a 1-1 draw in the Steaua Stadium, Bucharest, did secure the Reds progression to the knock-out stages of this season’s competition, as group winners.
Milan Jovanovic’s header had given Roy Hodgson’s much changed side the advantage. After the Reds had started brightly. However, a rare, costly, error from stand-in captain Pepe Reina gifted Steaua an equaliser. As the hosts tested Liverpool’s resolve in the latter stages.
Hodgson has become accustomed to resting key players and experimenting with the youth and fringe of his squad, in the European campaign at date. And his selection policy was no different here – with the Reds requiring just a further point from their final two matches to progress.
In fairness to the manager, the policy has now paid dividends. The Reds having now assured themselves progression to the latter stages, with a game to spare. Without having to call on some of the big-names of the squad – whether through choice or injury.
The downside of such a policy, though, is the lack of familiarity between those players who do take to the field on these European evenings. Many of the starting XI in Bucharest will have played little football together previously.
And that lack of cohesion was vividly evident at times in the Romanian capital. Players often appeared as though on a different wavelength in the final third. And Liverpool lacked fluidity to their play, after an encouraging start.
Liverpool had begun with some intent, though, in cagey opening to the game. Although Steaua Bucharest had the first real chance to opening the scoring. The opportunity fell to Eric Bicfalvi but he only succeeding in heading high over Reina’s crossbar.
Jovanovic was far more clinical with his head on 19 minutes, though. And Hodgson was rewarded for his experimental line-up, when the Serbian – in a rare start on the left wing –found the corner of Ciprian Tatarusanu’s net. Ryan Babel’s precise cross from the right of the area found Jovanovic unmarked. And his well directed header nestled in the corner of the net to open the scoring.
Bucharest were well-placed for qualification themselves going into this one. Sitting in second place in Group K, behind the Reds, having defeated FC Utrecht in their previous outing. However, as this was their final home fixture of the group stage, they needed something here to boost theirs aspirations of qualifying.
Yet it was Liverpool who could – and should – have doubled their advantage midway through the first half. Babel, operating in his favoured central role as a lone striker, on occasions looked a threat to the Steaua backline – although was often too isolated a figure up front. And it was the Dutchman who turned provider again. Pouncing on a loose defensive header a sending a good ball through to the returning Joe Cole – clean through on goal.
Cole had Tatarusanu’s goal at his mercy but showed a lack of conviction in front of goal (a disease which seems to be spreading through the Liverpool squad of late). He allowed the ball to get away from him and a gilt-edge chance was gone. Cole managed to recover possession but his pull-back to Dani Pacheco merely culminated in a tame shot wide from the young Spaniard.
There was a lack of cohesion amongst the Liverpool front players – particularly Babel, Cole and Pacheco – and consequently the visitors struggled to sustain any attacking momentum. And the hosts threat to Reina’s goal grew as the opening half progressed. As Hodgson revert to a more conservative approach with each passing minute.
Steaua Bucharest began to ask questions of an untried Reds defensive pairing of Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Danny Wilson. They could well have drawn level earlier than they did had it not been for some rather wayward shooting.
Kyrgiakos lost a challenge his should not have to the hosts leading scorer, Bogdan Stancu, in his own penalty area. Fortunately, though, Stancu hit a great chance well wide. Reina then had to be alert to Geraldo Alves’s unmarked header soon after the interval.
This may have been a much-change, rarely tried Liverpool XI, but it was one of the most senior players who ultimately cost the Reds the 3 points here. Stand-in skipper, Reina has been colossal for Liverpool time and again. Yet it was the Spaniard who had to admit fault at full-time. Having misjudged Eder Bomfim’s tame goal-ward header and allowed it to squirm embarrassingly between his legs.
Reina’s vision was undoubtedly obstructed by Steaua’s Romero Surdu. However, he openly acknowledged in the aftermath that he can offer few excuses for a rare error. Bomfim’s effort was directed straight at the ‘keeper but the ball evaded Reina’s grasp as he went to collect. The Spanish stopper desparately attempted to retrieve the ball as it disappeared between his legs. However his efforts were in vain, as the ball clearly crossed the goal line for a disappointing equalising goal.
Liverpool created very few openings in the second half. Although they almost responded immediately. Fabio Aurelio swung a corner into the danger area and, with the ‘keeper in no-man’s-land, Kyrgiakos headed against the bar. Any lower and the lead would have been regained. A poor clearance from Aurelio then allowed Banel Nicolita to flash a shot just wide.
The game somewhat petered out in the closing stages, as both sides struggled to gather much momentum. But the job had been done as far as Roy Hodgson was concerned. A third successive draw away from home in continental competition secured the point Liverpool required for qualification.
Whilst, the latest in a series of group K draws between FC Utrecht and Napoli in the Netherlands at least guaranteed one group of English representatives top spot from a quartet of hopefuls of this Thursday – in contrast to the earlier World Cup bidding results.
There have now been a surprising seven draws from the ten fixtures in Group K to date. Liverpool achieving two of the three victories thus far. So, job done for the Reds – if only in a workmanlike manner.
Man of the Match
Solid defensively for the most part. The big Greek’s experience was important for an untested, unfamiliar Reds defence. Could have nicked a winner.