Liverpool 1 Unirea 0: Ngog breaks Iron Curtain as Reds labour again at Anfield

19 February 2010 10:29
David Ngog might have chosen a less demanding way of proving his worth to Liverpool than trying to fill Fernando Torres's boots, but the French youngster continues to show he is not fazed by a challenge.

Torres will be welcomed back by all and sundry when he finally shakes off a nagging knee injury, but his absence would have been felt all the more keenly without Ngog's increasingly sterling efforts as Liverpool's lone front-runner.

Relief: David Ngog restored a modicum of pride at Anfield

The look of bewilderment from his early days has been replaced by agrowing assurance, and he added the happy knack of being in the rightplace at the right time to his other attributes last night to rescueLiverpool from the embarrassment of being held by rank outsiders Unirea.

Rafa Benitez's side made a reluctant entry into the Europa League and looked in grave danger of making a swift exit as they pummelled the Unirea goal to no effect, before Ngog's priceless intervention.

The Romanian champions wore all white, but Real Madrid they were not. Their ambitions extended no further than protecting their goal, but it was a masterplan that almost paid off, as Liverpool's frustration grew visibly with each missed opportunity.

There were plenty of them, as Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Javier Mascherano and Ngog all went close in a goalless first half and Fabio Aurelio forced a full-length save from overworked keeper Giedrius Arlauskis in the 62nd minute.

Benitez had clearly read the script in forecasting a tough battle against a well-drilled defensive unit, and his judgment proved flawless again in the 75th minute when he sent on Daniel Pacheco for the out-of-touch Albert Riera.

He stoops to conquer: Ngog nets at Anfield

The 19-year-old forward has the touch and guile to open up defences,but it was his forehead that made the difference nine minutes from time, as he met a deep cross from fellow substitute Ryan Babel and set up Ngog for a stooping close-range finish that finally banished Liverpool's mounting frustration.

There was seldom much chance of Liverpool being troubled at the other end, as Unirea stuck doggedly to their safety-first approach and failed to trouble Pepe Reina once.It meant Liverpool have now conceded just one goal in their last sixgames, but their failure to put the tie out of reach clearly irkedBenitez.

'We could have scored one or two more, and perhaps should,' he said. 'At least it was another clean sheet, and 1-0 is not a bad result. At least they will have to attack us in the second leg, and that should open up a bit more space and allow us to play a different game.

'I was pleased for Babel and Pacheco. It is always important to have players on the bench who can bring you something different, and they did that with the contribution they made for the goal.'

Heated discussion: Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez engage in conversion

It may have been far and away the biggest match in Unirea's brief history, but it was hardly Liverpool's.

Even so, Benitez stuck to his pre-match promise of fielding a strongstarting line-up and the home supporters treated the last 32 tie justas seriously, with a turnout that topped 40,000.

MATCH FACTSLIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina 6; Carragher 6, Skrtel 6, Agger 6, Aurelio 7; Mascherano 7, Aquilani 6 (Pacheco 75min, 6); Kuyt 8, Gerrard 7, Riera 6 (Babel 63, 6); Ngog 7 (Lucas 89). Booked: Mascherano.

UNIREA URZICENI (4-5-1): Arlauskis 7; Maftei 6, Galamaz 7, Fernandes 7, Brandan 6; Onofras 6 (Marinescu 75, 6), Paduretu 6 (Rusescu 90), Paraschiv 7 (Vilana 86), Apostol 6, Frunza 7; Bilasco 5.Booked: Fernandes, Brandan.

Man of the match: Dirk Kuyt.

Referee: Eric Braamhaar (Holland).

Given Unirea's policy of defending in depth, an early goal would have been useful and almost materialised from Liverpool's first attack, after exactly 26 seconds.

Kuyt controlled a ball from Aurelio on the edge of the area and set up Gerrard for a first-timesidefoot volley that Arlauskis turned round with the first of several full-length saves.

To the Liverpool's skipper's obvious displeasure, though, he mistimed an Unirea's game plan may have stretched no further than packing as many bodies as possible behind the ball, but what it lacked in adventure, it more than made up for in effectiveness, as Aurelio and Riera both discovered with shots that cannoned back off white shirts.

The Romanians' defiance reached new levels in the 36th minute whenMascherano was denied what would have been a goal-of-the-seasoncontender.

High ambition: Steven Gerrard goes close with a header

Meeting a half-clearance from 30 yards, the Argentina midfielder's first-time thunderbolt was screaming towards the top corner until it struck Sorin Frunza's straining forehead and flew over for a corner.

The little wing back merely shook his scrambled senses back into placebefore trotting towards a post for sentry duty at the resulting flag-kick.

It was that sort of night, with Unirea showing little interest inventuring beyond the halfway line but flatly refusing to yield at theback. It looked like succeeding, too, until Ngog undid them with hisseventh goal of the season to give Liverpool the edge for nextThursday's return leg.

Safe hands: Liverpool's Pepe Reina saves from Unirea's George Galamaz and Bruno Fernandes

A relieved Gerrard said: 'They were very stubborn, but we expectedthat. Maybe we need to be more clinical, but I think we will get morejoy against them away from home.

'They will have to come out and try to beat us, and hopefully we willtake advantage and kill them off. Maybe we lacked five to 10 per centin terms of being clinical but we were patient and the goal came. Wedeserved it.

'This is going to be a tough competition to win. There are some fantastic teams from the Champions League with clubs like Ajax, Juventus and Valencia involved. They aretop teams but we are confident we can go all the way. We believe wewill win more convincingly against them away.'

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Source: Daily_Mail