Liverpool wary of 'worst ever' Steaua pitch for Liverpool

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The Independent Football

The Liverpool manager, Gérard Houllier, said yesterday that the pitch for his side's Uefa Cup tie with Steaua Bucharest tonight is the worst he has ever seen.

Houllier's team take on the Romanian side at the Ghencea Stadium in the first leg of their second-round tie tonight. They were held to a 1-1 draw on a poor pitch in the first round against Olimpija Ljubljana but Houllier believes tonight's pitch is worse than the one they played on in Slovenia.

"The pitch is not poor, it is extremely poor, in fact terrible," the Frenchman said. "It is even worse than the one in Ljubljana where we played in the first round of the competition. I said that was the worst pitch we ever played on but this pitch will undoubtedly affect the way we play."

The last English visitors to the stadium, Southampton, were beaten by Steaua in the first round of the competition. Liverpool will turn to their comeback men to guide them through a demanding examination. A formidable Steaua side - like Liverpool, past European Cup winners - are, Houllier said, about the toughest second-round task possible.

That would have surely meant Michael Owen and Milan Baros starting tonight. But both are at home recovering from injury, and Houllier finds himself looking to Danny Murphy and Emile Heskey to carry the weight of expectation as Liverpool try to continue their recent revival. The pair were both left out of the side earlier in the season but are now crucial for what will be a demanding encounter.

Murphy, who was initially overlooked as Houllier fielded an adventurous midfield of Vladimir Smicer, Harry Kewell and El-Hadji Diouf, has also suffered three ankle injuries this term. But he is now back in favour and has scored two penalties in successive matches and revived his combative midfield partnership with Steven Gerrard.

Heskey, too, was dumped in favour of Baros earlier in the term but responded to claim three goals in his last two games.

Murphy has taken his chance with relish, and will - when everyone is fit - give Houllier a selection poser. For now, though, he isdetermined to help them tomorrow.

Murphy said: "We need to string a good run together now. We have started playing a bit more attacking football, and changed our formation.

"As people can see from the games throughout this season we have been scoring a lot of goals but we have been conceding too many. So we have been working on that and hopefully we have got the balance right now," he added.

"Winning games is what we want to achieve, and whatever way we need to achieve that, we will keep working to get there."

Murphy and Heskey will both have important roles to play as Liverpool step into what will be a difficult atmosphere at a ground where the pitch is already worrying. The conditions will require strength and power, and Houllier backs Heskey to deliver. "I have faith in my players and I am stubborn sometimes, that is a key element to succeeding," Houllier said. "I have said to Emile that I am happy when he misses chances, because that means he has been in the right positions."

Houllier does, however, have a selection dilemma in his defence as he prepares to face the Romanian league leaders. The seasoned internationals Stéphane Henchoz and John Arne Riise are battling for contention against Igor Biscan and Djimi Traoré, who have played at centre-back and left-back respectively in recent games.

Riise has been rested, Houllier said, because of his two Euro 2004 play-offs with Norway in the coming weeks, while Biscan has retained his place despite Henchoz's return. Diouf returns to the squad after suspension. Florent Sinama-Pongolle is in contention for Owen's role up front but Houllier is more likely to use Kewell and Heskey as his strike-force, with Smicer retained in his attacking midfield role.

Liverpool (from): Dudek, Finnan, Biscan, Hyypia, Traore, Diouf, Murphy, Gerrard, Smicer, Kewell, Heskey, Kirkland, Sinama-Pongolle, Le Tallec, Diao, Riise, Henchoz, Hamann, Welsh.