There's passion to be found inside a Macedonian football stadium. That most of last night's should have been directed at Liverpool's Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who suffered the misfortune of being a Greek in a country that cannot agree with its big neighbour Greece what its name might be, said much about Liverpool's curious first adventure on the long and winding road towards what might be a Dublin final next May.
The Greek/Macedonia naming dispute is too arcane and convoluted to trouble us much – the essence of is it is that Greece feels that by taking the name of one of its own regions for the nation, its neighbour is threatening annexation. Kyrgiakos has rarely looked capable of annexing anything in a mixed one-year career at Liverpool which may end in his sale back to his homeland next month – but that odd subplot had more colour in it than Liverpool's entire encounter with a side who look as if they would struggle in the lower reaches of League Two. The mere fact Roy Hodgson's side were to be found here served to illustrate how far the club fell in Rafael Benitez's last season.
Liverpool did not create much against a side whose manager, Zoran Stratev, said were "scared by the name of Liverpool" when it counted. But new signing Milan Jovanavic showed promise, 21-year-old Jay Spearing was commanding in the first game of what will be a critical season for him and 19-year-old David Amoo on the right showed he will be some player if he develops a delivery to match his pace. The match-winner, though, was David Ngog, one of the young players developed under Benitez whom the club should have less haste to be rid of than they are showing with others who remind them of the previous era.
Ngog's first last night, on 17 minutes, was a gift: Lucas Leiva's lofted ball escaped Fernando Lopes, then caused a mix-up between goalkeeper Martin Bogatinov and defender Egzon Belica, allowing Ngog to lift over the keeper. But the second, just before the hour, had nothing to do with good fortune – right-back Martin Kelly delivering a pinpoint cross and Ngog fastening on to the volley which rendered next Thursday's Anfield leg even more meaningless.
Kelly was the most promising of Hodgson's young players, later jinking down the right to cross well again. There was a hint of a hat-trick opportunity for Ngog though the goalkeeper was rather faster off his line when he ran through 10 minutes before time.
Overall Liverpool's tight shape and solidity showed the impact of Hodgson's reign, though the manager, prickly and fretful beforehand, gave a sense of the stress he is feeling, late last night. "I fear, having taken on this job, there will be a weight of expectation on my shoulders every time I step in Melwood... or go to a game with the team," he said.
The only bad moment came 10 minutes after the interval when Kyrgiakos's slow reactions to a long ball almost led to an equaliser. The Skopje public had forgotten to berate him by then and 15 minutes before time had started processing out of the stadium. As Hodgson relaxed and threw more and more youth into the venture, a section of floodlights also failed. It will take rather more of a threat than Rabotnicki to turn the lights out on his new side.
Rabotnicki (4-1-4-1): Bogatinov, Belica, Sekulovski, Dimovski, Todorovski; Gligorov; Tuneski, Fernando Lopes, Ze Carlos, Da Silva; Wandeir. Substitutes not used Kandikijan, Marcio, Mojsov, Adem, Roberto Carlos, Petkovski, Sinkovic.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Cavalieri; Kelly, Kyrgiakos, Skrtel, Agger (Darby, 72); Amoo (Dalla Valle, 84), Spearing, Lucas, Jovanovic; Aquilani (Eccleston, 84); Ngog. Substitutes not used Gulacsi, Shelvey,Ayala, Ince.
Referee A Damato ( Italy ).Reuse content