David Ngog's 81st minute header sees Liverpool take the upper hand.
In the pre-game I expressed continued concern about how Liverpool would approach today's match, and Rafa's pre-match comments didn't do much to soothe my worries. Sure, the starting eleven was strong, but even with the strongest of lineups Liverpool has struggled to perform at a high level. Would they be flat and lifeless, as we've seen too many times this season? Would they be looking past today (and the competition as a whole) with Sunday in mind?
Thankfully they were neither, but it was still somewhat frustrating. Not for lack of effort, though. Prior to the winner, it was a match in the vein of Stoke City at Anfield in 2008---ten, if not eleven, men behind the ball, crowding the final third and blocking any path to goal. Liverpool consistently threw men forward, almost running themselves ragged at times in attack. There was no letdown in terms of effort, and for me, that's the most encouraging sign.
Which I still would have said if Steven Gerrard converted his chance in the opening minute, which saw Liverpool fly into attack and create one of the game's better chances. A flowing move that started on the left wing led to Dirk Kuyt's clever flick to Gerrard, whose first-time strike tested Aurlauskis into a good save. It was as clear a signal of intent as Liverpool could muster, and it set the tone for the rest of the match.
We saw a little bit of everything from Liverpool in attack---crosses, long-range efforts, slashing runs through the middle---but unfortunately all fell short. If anything, it was a good test for Liverpool to stretch themselves, and it underlined the need for them to get a bit more creative. Liverpool's attack has been a black hole at times this season, and one of the main culprits has been a lack of creativity. Today looked to be a move in a different direction, with Liverpool almost exclusively in attack, although too often that attack ended outside Unirea's box. It was frustrating that they didn't find goal earlier, but it forced them to go beyond hoofing the ball up the pitch. Granted, it was Unirea, but I don't think you can fault Liverpool entirely for failing to break through prior to the 81st minute. Unirea put forth an organized, stingy display, and came very close to leaving Anfield with a fantastic result.
I don't think it's a surprise that the winner didn't come until changes were made, with Babel on for Riera and Pacheco for Aquilani. Neither Riera or Alberto played poorly, but Liverpool needed players that could streak forward with a bit more pace, as there were red jerseys literally stacking up outside the box. Babel was involved almost immediately after coming on, and it was his cross in the 81st that led to the goal. Another spell of continued peripheral pressure ended with Babel slicing a cross to Pacheco on the far side of goal, and the young Spaniard nodded back to Ngog, who made no mistake heading it dead center.
UEFA cracked down, so here's a link to the goal.
Unfortunately that's where my viewing experience ended, as my work picked up and I couldn't justify slacking off any longer. Visit oh you beauty if you need the details. As I mentioned earlier, I'm encouraged by the fact that Liverpool were able to find a goal in the type of match that's seen them fall short far too often. The side has been short of creativity in attack, and it looks like answers could be emerging, particularly with a few good run-outs from Ryan Babel of late. The problem there is the question of should he/shouldn't he be starting---does he have the same influence from minute one that he has in minute 70? Ehhhhh. But the defense was again stable, stifling the few forward movements that Unirea were able to pull off, and I can't honestly remember Pepe Reina being tested.
It's a win in Europe, it's a win after a tough loss at the Emirates, and it's a win heading into a vital match on Sunday. Above all else, Liverpool found a way to win when they needed to. Hopefully I can type the same thing in a few days' time.