Europa League - Patient Liverpool start with victory

Eurosport - Thu, 16 Sep 22:00:00 2010

Joe Cole scored his first Liverpool goal as the second string clicked into gear to beat Steaua Bucharest 4-1 at Anfield in their first Europa League Group K game of the season.

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Roy Hodgson’s side was largely bereft of its stars, with Cole, Pepe Reina and Paul Konchesky the only genuine first-choice players in the starting XI.

And despite going ahead through Cole in the first minute it took them until the second half to really gel, with David N’Gog’s penalty and a sublime finish from substitute Lucas putting the game beyond Steaua before N’Gog added a late fourth.

It was a patient display from Liverpool, who lost their way after conceding an early equaliser to Cristian Tanase, although the opposition were only really impressive in flashes.

The hosts made a raft of changes: Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Glen Johnson, Lucas, Milan Jovanovic, Christian Poulsen and Martin Skrtel were all rested after the goalless draw with Birmingham, as Hodgson made it clear that he prioritises the league over cup competitions.

They started like a house on fire though, as Cole - absent recently due to domestic suspension - capitalised on a defensive error to finish low off the inside of the post after only 30 seconds.

Sotirios Kyrgiakos saw a fifth-minute header blocked and Steaua were on the rack as Liverpool peppered them with attacks.

But the Romanians resisted thanks in part to a succession of poor final balls and the initial inactivity of N’Gog, who toiled without really having an impact.

After 12 minutes, and against the run of play, Ilie Dumitrescu’s side equalised.

A mistake from youngster Jay Spearing allowed them to launch a superb counter attack and Bogdan Stancu - tipped to take the national team mantle from Adrian Mutu - played a delightful ball through to Tanase, who finished over Reina with aplomb.

The goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of Liverpool, who lost confidence and their way as the first half ebbed away into a dirge.

Not only was their final ball poor - Maxi Rodriguez was particularly culpable - but they started losing out in the possession stakes, as Steaua knocked it about stylishly and stretched the home side on the break.

Stancu was a key instigator, with early substitute Banel Nicolita also impressing, as the home fans grew nervous in the face of noisy support from a cluster of Romanians.

Little of note actually happened though, with a visible lack of quality on both sides: Cole drifted out of the game, with Liverpool’s main attacking threat at times left-back Konchesky; Steaua lacked a cutting edge to match their slick passing.

The second half saw Liverpool immediately keep a lot more of the ball, with Cole, Raul Meireles and Maxi far more influential.

Nine minutes in, they won a penalty, when Kyrgiakos went to ground at a corner after a challenge by fellow Greek Pantelis Kapetanos. The Steaua forward undeniably pulled the shirt of the Liverpool defender, although he chose to go down after contact, leading to protests from the visitors.

Cole famously missed a spot-kick in qualifying, so N’Gog stepped up to roll the ball into the bottom left, with keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu going the wrong way.

The goal gave Liverpool - and N'Gog - added confidence, as they immediately set about passing crisply, trying flamboyant backheels and defence-splitting passes.

Meireles, on his first start for the club, forced two smart stops in quick succession from the now overworked Tatarusanu as Liverpool found the shooting boots to match their build-up play.

Steaua, meanwhile, looked a shadow of the side they were in the first half: they did not make an attacking breach into Liverpool’s half until the 70th minute.

Chances were still infrequent though, with the atmosphere of a part-filled Anfield strangely subdued: in a final warning Steaua could and should have equalised with a rare break that saw Stancu again release Kapetanos, who curled his finish wide with Reina stranded.

That would have been undeserved though, and some respectability was granted to the scoreline when Lucas - who had just come on for Ryan Babel - drilled in a superb finish from the edge of the box to end any doubts with eight minutes remaining.

Liverpool could relax, and they started playing the football the home fans grew accustomed to over the past 30 years, with N’Gog adding a gloss to the night's work when he stormed through a succession of challenges, capitalising on a lucky bounce or two before smashing a low shot into the bottom left.

The win means Liverpool are top at this early stage, with the other Group K match finishing in a goalless draw between Napoli and Utrecht.

Reda Maher / Eurosport

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