Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, was pleased with the character shown by his side after they bounced back from the shock of conceding an early goal to Unirea Urziceni in Romania to earn a place in the last 16 of the Europa League comfortably last night.
Shaky defending from set pieces in the first half saw them fall behind to Bruno Fernandes' header in the 18th minute and for a while they looked rattled. However, goals from Javier Mascherano from long range and Ryan Babel from close in turned things around before the interval and Steven Gerrard's 33rd European goal – a record for a British player – in the second half ensured any potential embarrassment was avoided.
"We showed character. It was a difficult game because of the pitch. We needed to be calm and do the job properly," Benitez said. "To play better we needed to score our goal as they were dangerous at set pieces. I think once we scored a goal everything was easier and the second and third goals made things better. Still we had some problems but the main thing was to score; we did it and we had more control of the game."
However, just as he thought his injury worries were easing, Benitez lost the centre-back Martin Skrtel to a suspected broken foot following a challenge by the Unirea substitute Antonio Semedo. "At this moment we don't know how serious it is but it could be a broken foot," Benitez said. "That would be bad news but we will have to wait and see what happens but it was a bad tackle."
The Romanian side cancelled out Liverpool's first-leg advantage when Razvan Paduretu's inviting corner allowed Fernandes to power home a header virtually unchallenged.
However, Benitez's side steadied things and in the 29th minute they equalised when Babel miscontrolled Gerrard's far-post header with only the goalkeeper to beat but the ball broke to Mascherano outside the penalty area for him to lash a shot past goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis.
Liverpool gave themselves the cushion they needed five minutes before half-time. Gerrard swung in a free-kick from the right and Babel took one touch before swivelling to fire home from close range.
Gerrard wrapped things up in the 57th minute when he seized on a loose ball following Yossi Benayoun's run to shoot low past Arlauskis.
The Unirea coach, Roni Levy, admitted that even when his side opened the scoring he did not consider there could be an upset. "I knew it was an early goal and we had a long time until the end of the game," he said.
Unirea Urziceni (4-4-2): Arlauskis; Maftei, Galamaz (Mehmedovic, 27), Fernandes, Bordeanu; Paduretu, Paraschiv (Vilana, 56), Apostol, Onofras (Semedo, 62); Bilasco, Frunza. Substitutes not used: Tudor (gk), Rusescu, Nicu, Marinescu.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Carragher (Kelly, 61), Agger, Skrtel (Kyrgiakos, 66), Insua; Babel, Lucas, Mascherano, Benayoun (Aurelio, 77); Gerrard; Ngog. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Aquilani, Torres, Kuyt.
Referee: S Johannesson (Sweden).