Liverpool prove strength in depth as Cole delivers first blow to crush Steaua

Liverpool 4 Steaua Bucharest 1
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The Independent Football

Off the pitch, it was business as what passes for usual at Liverpool with co-owner Tom Hicks in London attempting to stave off the enforced sale of the club and if necessary assume sole control, without his partner George Gillett. Gillett is struggling to avoid defaulting on a £75m loan secured against his stake in the club. On the field, matters were running rather more smoothly.

In two days' time Roy Hodgson undergoes his first test as manager of Liverpool, the gran clasico with Manchester United. Of his predecessors, Gérard Houllier was rather good at it while Rafael Benitez was just getting the hang of it when he was asked to leave.

Like Manchester United against Rangers on Tuesday night, the Liverpool manager rested his big players and trusted in the depth of his squad against opponents he would reckon to beat. Unlike Sir Alex Ferguson it was a gamble that worked, although this was partly because, in contrast to the Scottish champions, Steaua Bucharest did not park a depot's worth of buses in front of their goal. The scoreline was rather flattering to the home side but not by much. Steaua Bucharest, who derive even more comfort from their past than Liverpool, began catastrophically, recovered well and then fell apart. Joe Cole scored his first goal on Merseyside, Lucas Leiva provided proof that he is Brazilian and Liverpool, for what it is worth, top their group.

If only things were as simple in th boardroom, where there is a real possibility that Hicks will succeed in organising a refinancing of the £350m debt and thus prevent the club's sale.

It was a strange evening. Lucas's introduction was met with jeers, especially when the fourth official indicated mistakenly that Ngog would be making way. A couple of moments later, he drove a shot from distance into the goal beneath the Kop.

When Benitez brought Lucas to Merseyside it should have been a signing that drove the club forward – a blond Brazilian with the kind of looks that would have got him a gig with the Brady Bunch. Instead, the midfielder rated the finest talent at under-19 level in Brazil became a byword for negativity and ineffectiveness. This might start to redress the balance, although the stadium announcer did laugh when announcing the goalscorer's name, while Steven Gerrard, watching from the stands, applauded and grinned.

Liverpool also benefited from some extreme clumsiness in the Steaua penalty area. Bucharest's striker, Pantelis Kapetanos played alongside Sotiris Kyrgiakos at AEK Athens and must have recognised him as a threat from corners because as the defender moved to meet Maxi Rodriguez's delivery he was hauled down by his fellow Greek. The penalty in front of the Kop fell to David Ngog, who emphatically sent Ciprian Tatarusanu the wrong way and finished even more emphatically in the first minute of stoppage time. Given the way Kyrgiakos almost struck the corner flag with a wild shot a few moments later, Kapetanos may have wondered why he bothered.

Ilie Dumitrescu's taste of English football was as part of the Tottenham side constructed by Ossie Ardiles on the principle that defenders were something the game could do without. White Hart Lane was long on thrills, its supporters short on fingernails and, fun though it was, it couldn't possibly last. After 25 seconds as Cole seized on a dreadful back-pass from Octavian Abrudan and slotted his shot home, it appeared that Steaua were the Tottenham of 1993 revisited.

Cole would not have cared that the goal had been a gift. Since Cole's first steps on Merseyside had seen him dismissed on his debut and miss a penalty in the Europa League qualifier against Trabzonspor, he had needed to smile.

It was his first goal since the flick at Old Trafford that had propelled Chelsea towards a title-deciding victory over Manchester United. This by comparison was a Europa League game against a side whose domination of the Romanian League has long been broken but to see Cole punching the air, you would not have been able to tell.

Given that Hodgson had been forced to defend Liverpool from accusations of dullness – a charge frequently levelled at both Benitez and Houllier – in the wake of Sunday's goalless draw at Birmingham, this was some riposte.

As anyone who witnessed the grim sterility of the 1986 European Cup final when Steaua played for, got and won a penalty shoot-out against Barcelona, Bucharest can do dull, too. Nevertheless, a dozen minutes later they were level as Cristian Tanase raced to meet a neat through-ball from Bogdan Stancu and arrived fractionally and fatally before Pepe Reina. Tanase won the race largely because he outpaced Kyrgiakos without appearing to break sweat. The big Greek defender has many admirable qualities but speed is not one of them – Aristotle Onassis had tankers that turned quicker.

Liverpool are, as Hodgson stresses, very much a work in progress and there were elements of that throughout. A run and shot from Jay Spearing that skimmed the bar, a lovely touch for Cole that Ryan Babel failed to capitalise on and a mix up between Daniel Agger and Paul Konchesky that was almost fatal. Midway through the first half Spearing bluntly told the rest of his midfield to buck their ideas up - though these were not the words he used.

It was interesting from a number of angles; that a 21-year-old graduate of the Liverpool Academy should have the courage to say it or that Anfield should have been empty enough to hear it. And on hearing it, the old ground burst into applause.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1) Reina; Kelly, Kyrgiakos, Agger, Konchesky; Spearing, Meireles; Rodriguez (Pacheco, 85), Cole (Ecclestone, 88), Babel (Lucas, 79); Ngog. Substitutes not used Jones (gk), Johnson, Carragher, Shelvey.

Steaua Bucharest (4-2-3-1) Tatarusanu; Emeghara (Nicolita, 20), Abrudan, Alves, Latovlevici; Angelov (Bonfim, 52), Bicfalvi; Radut (Surdu, 73), Stancu, Tanase; Kapetanos. Substitutes not used Lungu (gk), Gardos, Gomes, Apostol.

Man of the match Ngog.

Referee C Fernandez (Sp).

Attendance 25,605.

Match rating 7/10.

Group K

Results so far: Liverpool 4 Steaua Bucharest 1, Napoli 0 Utrecht 0.

Liverpool's remaining fixtures: 30 Sep Utrecht (a); 21 Oct Napoli (a); 4 Nov Napoli (h); 2 Dec Steaua Bucharest (a); 15 Dec Utrecht (h).