Ngog stoops to conquer as Liverpool lower their sights

Liverpool 1 Unirea Urziceni 0
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The Independent Football

The home fans kept the faith, with 41,000 tickets sold and not one of the red contingent cowed by news that Unirea had broken their duck on English soil in recent days with a 1-0 win in a practice match at Northwich Victoria. But any thoughts of Liverpool gaining instant encouragement from their descent to a place among Europe's also-rans were hastily put aside last night.

The worrying part for Rafael Benitez, whose side have now managed one goal in each of their last five European games, is that his players summoned all the effort and workrate he could have asked for and commanded 61 per cent of possession. But they still lacked a single spark of invention against a Romanian side who have not played competitive football since 14 December. Ignition finally came in the form of Ryan Babel's deep, 81st minute cross for 19-year-old young substitute striker Daniel Pacheco, whose cushioned header David Ngog nodded home to spare some embarrassment.

"Maybe we lacked five to 10 per cent in terms of being clinical," Steven Gerrard admitted last night. "But this is going to be a tough competition to win. There are some fantastic teams from thee Champions League with clubs like Ajax, Juventus and Valencia involved. They are top teams but we are confident we can go all the way."

Yet how Liverpool have fallen in a year. The last continental side clad all in white which Anfield saw around Springtime was Real Madrid, demolished 4-0 last March. "We cannot play like we did against Real Madrid every game when the other team is waiting and we have to keep attacking," Benitez pleaded. "If we'd scored in the first minute would have been different."

He was referring to the brief moment when his side looked like they really meant business, Fabio Aurelio taking 26 seconds to feed Dirk Kuyt, whose short ball across the area Gerrard met first time, forcing Gledrius Aslauskis to palm the ball away. In that moment, the pleasures of the old Uefa Cup would perhaps have been revisted on Benitez, whose last game in the tournament was Valencia's 2004 final win over Marseilles.

But from then, Unirea coach Roni Levi's side sat deep and let Liverpool's side do the work. If Benitez is looking for Alberto Aquilani to deliver on his potential in this tournament then he will have to wait some more. "Aquilani has to play more games. It is difficult when the other team is deep, always to find the right time is not easy." For one reason or another, it never seems to be easy for Benitez's £17m man.

Albert Riera had most possession but largely spurned it: increasingly it seems that the best Benitez can for hope for him is a good World Cup to inflate the price Liverpool can command for him next summer. The net effect with Ryan Babel, who arrived in Riera's place, was much the same.

Liverpool did lift the tempo as the game wore on but a fine, low, 30-yard drive from Aurelio was palmed away again and two headed chances – Gerrard's from a Carragher cross and Skrtel's from Aurelio's corner were spurned. The encouraging part for Benitez, ahead of the return in Bucharest next Thursday, is that Unirea do not look like a side with a goal in them and will have to attack, creating more space for Liverpool next time. Can you score two? Levi was asked. "Let's start with one," he replied. The clamour for tickets can't continue if things go on like this.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Aurelio; Aquilani (Pacheco 75), Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard, Riera (Babel 63); Ngog (Lucas 90). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Degen.

Unirea Urziceni (4-1-4-1): Arlauskis; Maftei, Galamaz, Bruno Fernandes, Brandan; Paraschiv (Vilana 86); Onofras (Marinescu 75), Paduretu (Rusescu 90), Apostol, Frunza; Bilasco. Substitutes not used: Tudor, Mehmedovic, Nicu, Bordeanu.

Referee: E Braamhaar (Netherlands).