One year on from Liverpool's storming of the Bernabeu, one of the proudest nights in the club's long history, Rafael Benitez's side were confronted with a sharp reminder of the past.
Related ArticlesEuropa League tablesEuropa League fixturesBabel upbeat about Anfield futureFormer Liverpool footballer 'too drunk to control car'Benítez in Torres pleaSport on televisionOne thing was different, though. The Spaniard did not bring his side to Bucharest in search of glory. This was a trip whose sole purpose was to go some way to restoring a battered reputation.
Liverpool managed that, at least, despite a nervous start and the vim and vigour of Unirea Urziceni. Goals from Javier Mascherano, Ryan Babel and Steven Gerrard a strike that made the Liverpool captain the most prolific
British player in European competition guaranteed their progress, but however far their sojourn in this tournament lasts, there will be no question of taking anyone lightly.
Any lingering optimism among Liverpool's hardy travelling support that Unirea's ultra-cautious display at Anfield was through necessity rather than choice evaporated in the second minute, Sorin Frunza's half-volley dipping on to the roof of Pepe Reina's net.
The Romanian champions, 70 kilometres from home, had no intention of supplicating before Europe's stumbling giants.
Liverpool replied immediately, Gerrard swivelling on Lucas's pinpoint pass and, as he did at Anfield, making sure Giedrius Arlauskis was fully focused, but, while Benitez's side dominated possession, their passing was aimless, their play static, uninspired.
Unirea, on the other hand, brimmed with purpose. Marius Bilasco, supported by Frunza and Marius Onofras, foraged relentlessly, while in Razvan Paduretu, the hosts boasted a dead-ball specialist of menacing accuracy.
That, at least, should have been no surprise in the land of Gheorghe Hagi, of course, and while Paduretu is clearly not in the class of the Maradona of the Carpathians, his corners bewildered Liverpool.
Benitez's side may have returned to their parsimonious best in recent weeks, but their nerves remain easily frayed.
Paduretu had already had one range-finder when, after Onofras had called Daniel Agger into a last-ditch sliding tackle as he bore down on goal, he whipped the ball onto the edge of the six-yard box and Bruno Fernandes, the bruising centre back, rose unchallenged to head the ball home. Cue bedlam, cue dread.
Liverpool attempted to reassert control, but, blood pumping, they struggled to quell the crowd, contain their spirited opponents. Even when Jamie
Carragher, valiantly mimicking a raiding right-back, crossed deep to the far post, Gerrard's knockdown was scrambled away only as far as Mascherano and the Argentine rocketed a 25-yard shot past Arlauskis, Unirea refused to buckle.
More corners, more panic followed. One sped across the face of goal, almost forced in at the far post by the retreating Emiliano Insua. Reina was forced to tip another away.
More through luck than judgment, Liverpool survived and, just before the break, all but settled the tie. Gerrard's free kick was knocked down by Martin Skrtel and the enigmatic Babel, in one smooth movement, turned and fired home.
Even as Roni Levi's side found themselves needing to score four times, they lacked nothing in energy. Gerrard's goal, capitalising on good work by Lucas and Yossi Benayoun and trickling through Arlauskis's legs, added a scarcely warranted gloss to the scoreline.
More significantly, it represented the first time his side have scored three goals in a single match since September.
There were further scares, of course, as pride replaced dreams for Levi's side.
There was to be no consolation for the Romanians. Liverpool may yet secure theirs.
Juventus v FulhamAtlético Madrid v Sporting LisbonValencia v W BremenHamburg v AnderlechtBenfica v MarseilleLille v LiverpoolPanathinaikos v Standard LiegeRubin Kazan v WolfsburgTwo-leg ties to be played March 11 & 18