Liverpool draw in Bucharest to top Europa League group
With one point enough to take Liverpool through to the next round, Roy Hodgson raised no eyebrows when he sent out a starting 11 of fringe players and youngsters against Steaua Bucharest on Thursday.
Among the Liverpool line-up in Romania were Spanish forward Dani Pacheco, former Charlton starlet Jonjo Shelvey and the Scottish international Danny Wilson – all of whom went into the game with a desire to prove they are good enough to be in contention for a place in the manager’s first-team plans.
But it was not just the Reds’ younger players who had a point to prove. Ryan Babel, the £11m signing from Ajax, was given a rare start up front, whilst Milan Jovanovic and Christian Poulsen, who both arrived in the summer transfer window, were given the opportunity to try and endear themselves to the so far unconvinced Liverpool faithful.
It was Steaua who started the game better, pushing forward and troubling the Liverpool back-four but ultimately lacking in the final third. It was evident this was a Liverpool side not used to playing together, with a number of misplaced passes and mix-ups between players often ending promising attacking moves.
Despite failing to threaten the Steaua goal in the opening minutes it was Liverpool who struck first, with Jovanovic breaking forward through the middle of the park before laying it wide right to Babel, who floated a well-placed ball directly back to Jovanovic for the Serb to head home to give the visitors the lead.
Minutes later Babel was troubling the Steaua back-four again, this time breaking down the left and playing a ball into the middle towards Joe Cole. But the former Chelsea man saw his first touch take the ball away from him, allowing a number of Steaua players to swamp the box before Pacheco fired his shot wide to end the move.
Though Steaua began to control the game as the half went on they were unable to turn their possession into chances, with a handful of corners from Banel Nicolita, a drilled shot from Eric Bicfalvi and a close-range miss from Bogdan Stancu the only threats the Romanian outfit offered up before the half came to a close.
Much like in the first half, Steaua started the second period with a surge forward. Their first attacking move of the half culminated in Surdu slicing a shot well wide following a lay-off from Stanislav Angelov, who had been brought on to replace Bicfalvi during the half-time break.
Shortly after Steaua broke forward again, with Cristian Tanase swinging in a cross from the left-hand side which was headed towards goal by Alves Geraldo. But his strike was aimed directly at Pepe Reina, who collected easily to scupper the move and relieve the pressure on the Liverpool rearguard.
With 15 minutes of the second half gone, and with further building momentum, the hosts got an equaliser, with Eder Bonfim latching onto a ball from Angelov and heading towards Reina, who fumbled when trying to collect, allowing the ball to slip through his legs and across the line to bring the home side level.
As the second half progressed Liverpool showed little of the flair that was on display in the first period – a headed effort from centre-half Sotirios Kyrgiakos just after the equaliser was Liverpool’s only major chance.
As a result, Hodgson made two changes in quick succession, bringing on David N’Gog for a frustrated Joe Cole whilst scorer Jovanovic was replaced by Nathan Eccleston with just over 10 minutes to go.
Roy Hodgson’s final move of the game was to take off Pacheco, who had a quiet game on the right-hand side, replacing him with Brazilian midfielder Lucas Lieva – seeing the game out was clearly the main objective of the Liverpool manager.
The game ended all square and though not an inspiring performance, it was job done for Liverpool, with the point in Bucharest securing their place in the next round of the competition with one game of the group stage remaining.