Liverpool v Unirea Urziceni
Thursday 18th February
If Dave’s could take a rare moment to get serious readers, he’d like to tell you that he picked this game as it highlights his biggest bugbear with the modern game. The UEFA Cup (and FA and League Cup’s) was once seen as a hugely important competition that could define whether a club ‘at the top table’ had enjoyed a successful season or not. Now it’s seen as hindrance to the bigger priority of getting into a qualifying stage for another competition. Everyone knows the reason for this is the much sort after ‘Champions League Revenue’ that comes with qualification for the group stages but one of the many things that disappoints is that lots of fans as well as directors of clubs seem to give this priority over their team winning a pot.
Maybe it’s me here at Dave’s. Maybe I’m living with nostalgic and romantic ideas that are no longer relevant. Maybe I’m putting short term glory ahead of perceived long-term stability (such as that enjoyed after Champions League appearances at Elland Road and sportsdirect.com@St.James’Park.) And maybe kids don’t now grow up dreaming of scoring the winning goal in the cup final, instead its the goal that means their team finishes 4th and in turn, they get a mention in the boardroom when the club announces a record turnover at the yearly accounts.
The face of Five’s Europa League coverage and Liverpool fan Colin Murray told us that a ‘sold-out Anfield expects tonight’ (which I suspected was an early porky from the chirpy Ulsterman (the ‘sold-out’ rather than ‘expects’ bit obviously)) and immediately we saw Rafa Benitez and his Liverpool team arrive at the stadium amidst the news he was fielding a strong team for the game. We were then treated to a montage of clips highlighting Liverpool’s poor season so far with snippets of radio commentary focussing on defeats and exit from the Champions League. Just as the full depressing reality of a team being 4th in the Premier League and still in European competition in mid-February was hitting home we were thankfully uplifted as the camera slowly walked under the iconic ‘THIS IS ANFIELD’ tunnel entrance, the music picked up and we got to hear radio clips of more successful moments from the season so far. Phew!
Unlikely popular pundit Stan Collymore was in the studio with Murray, while at pitch side we had the thinking-mans pundit (pun semi-intentional) and softly spoken Scot, Pat Nevin. Nevin then let me down after that favourable introduction by rolling out one of the traditional Liverpool in Europe sound bites that ‘these fans love European Nights.’ A graphic appeared showing us the current odds for this year’s tournament and unsurprisingly Liverpool were sillily underpriced favourites at 13/2. Nevin opined that current holders Shakhtar Donetsk were the value at 14/1 whereas if DTVSr was asked to delve into its substantial gambling knowledge he would advise you to take a chance on ’The Peoples Club’ from across Stanley Park at 20/1.
As the build up continued we were given snippets of info on Unirea which included that the town of Urziceni could fit into Anfield twice over and there’d still be 10,000 empty seats, the club ‘fell out of’ the Champions League group stages despite beating Rangers and Sevilla and that former Sheffield Wednesday and Chelsea player Dan Petrescu was their previous manager. All the kind of stuff DTVSr (mostly knows but still) likes to be told to be fair. Benitez was then interviewed and I don’t think anybody could’ve faulted the basic logic in stating that he’s ‘playing a strong team as they want to win.’
Straight from another advert (we were now onto number 4 with the programme 25 minutes old) we saw shots of the crowd and Murray enthusiastically told us that a familiar song could be heard and true to his word a surprisingly full Anfield was scarves aloft singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. Is anything more comforting of a European night at Anfield than commentators going over the top about this spectacle that more often than not is followed by average at best support for 90 minutes? So we could all reflect on just how magical this is, Five thoughtfully went to another add break and on coming back Murray informed us that ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone had just gone on for ‘3 or 4 full choruses…It’s a European night all right!’ You said it Muzzer!
Liverpool started the game well and after just 35 seconds Steven Gerrard had quite a decent chance and his volley was saved by the Unirea keeper Giedrius Arlauskis. It would not be unfair to say this was the highlight of the play for the 1st 45 minutes as despite controlling possession, Liverpool created very little in the way of chances. The stand out aspect for DTVSr was the prominence of one of the referee’s assistants. For those of you unaware, UEFA are trialling the introduction of 2 additional referee’s assistants behind each goal during this years Europa League games meaning there are 5 ‘officials’ on or around the pitch during the match. Despite having watched a good handful of matches in the competition already this season I hadn’t noticed that they walk onto the field during play so seeing this assistant 10 yards into the pitch at the Kop end looked bizarre to say the least. Wearing navy blue trackies to accompany his bright blue ref’s shirt one would be forgiven for thinking we were witnessing sporadic but laboured one-man pitch invasions from a Danish league keeper.
With a trackie bottomed official walking on and off the pitch being the most noteworthy moment of the opening half hour, commentator Dave Webb remarked that ‘it’s a quiet night at Anfield isn’t it.’ Surely this broke the journalistic code of conduct that can only describe European nights (why are they never referred to as ‘European Games?’) at Anfield as ‘passionate’, ‘electric’ and ‘typical.’ As the whistle went to signal the end of the first half Webb continued to write his own death warrant by telling us ‘the lack of noise around Anfield tells its own story.’ Shame on you Dave Webb, Clive Tyldesley would be turning in his grave (were he dead.)
Murray welcomed us back to the studio after the adverts by telling us he’s ‘not a big fan of stats on a night like this so here’s the one maters, Liverpool 0 Unirea Urziceni 0.’ We went to Nevin who was now in one of them control room type analysis vans (popularised by Channel 4’s Test Match coverage a few years back) and he showed us clips and graphics to indicate the shape of Unirea’s defence. After a few words from Nevin and Collymore regarding Liverpool’s poor attacking play, Murray made a gag at the expense of their pronunciation of Liverpool centre forward David Ngog. “I’m a big fan of David ‘N-go’, its David Ngog I’m not so keen on.’ This made a change from him telling us how big a game this could turn out to be in ‘Leverpurl’s’ season.
No changes to either side as the second half began but the Leverpurl fans got behind their team with a chorus of ‘oh when the reds go marching in’ At this point I should state how surprised and impressed I was that Anfield had sold out for this. Those of you who keep up with my tweets will know that I put this down to reduced ticket prices and offered to ‘eat my hat’ if this wasn’t the case. Well I can say that having done a little research on the topic, tickets were their usual price and that last night, true to my word, I ate my ‘hat’ (in the form of tasty ham and salami pizza.) I would like to add to my unlikely praise of the Liverpool fans by saying that I don’t think any other club in Europe would have done so for this game (yes, I am more than aware that there are stadiums twice the size of Anfield amongst some of the clubs of Europe.) However I would like to finish on this attendances note by adding that should Liverpool play in the Europa League again next season, expect to see a few thousand empty seats at number of games and if I’m wrong, well I’ll eat my hat again.
After an unprecedented second commentary mention of the night for Northwich Victoria (Unirea played them in a friendly on Monday) we saw Anfield legends Kenny Dalglish and Phil Thomson sat together. ‘Nine hundred and ninety two Liverpool appearances between them’ Webb very matter of factly pointed out, which I’m guessing he didn’t just remember of the top of his head. Thankfully the game livened up around the hour mark as Unirea had a half chance with a shot from the edge of the box, shortly followed by a decent long range effort from Liverpool full back Fabio Aurelio. Ryan Babel then replaced the ineffective Albert Riera and Gerrard had a very half-hearted penalty appeal turned down which on replay didn’t even seem worthy of that adjective. ‘It’s like appealing for an LBW and then realising its going well down leg-side’ Webb commented.
The urgency of the situation seemed to becoming more apparent to Liverpool now who built pressure and after a scramble in the Unirea box, Ngog’s shot was deflected wide for a corner. ‘They’re no mugs’ said Webb who chose this moment to read out Unirea’s Champions League record and co-commentator Graham Taylor added that he was ‘impressed they’ve stuck to their game plan so well.’ In another positive move Benitez brought off midfielder Alberto Aquilani for young Spanish forward Daniel Pacheco. After a pretty standard applause/cheer for this substitute Webb told us ‘If nothing else that has really lifted the mood here’ in an obvious attempt to get back on track to the guidelines given in the ‘How to commentate on European nights at Anfield’ manual.
Just a minute after a promising looking situation for Unirea, Liverpool scored after Pacheco headed Babel’s deep cross back across goal for Ngog to nod in from close range. ‘Well that’s what we’ve been asking Liverpool to do isn’t it’ Taylor stated. This understandably perked the Kop up and ‘Fields of Anfield Road’ briefly reverberated around the stadium. Gerrard then teed himself up for a great effort from outside the box which was ‘so Steven Gerrard wasn’t it.’
Taylor when asked what mark out of 10 Liverpool’s performance merited, said that he ‘wouldn’t give higher than a six’ which was pretty much the number I was expecting and as the game came to an end it was hard to argue with the veteran ex-England Manager. Even in the 10 minutes or so after they’d made the breakthrough and with the crowd relatively lively they hadn’t put any great strain on the opposition. Still, it’s hard to imagine them not progressing through the 2nd leg and as Gerrard said in the after match interview ‘they’ll get more joy against them next week, when they have to come at us in their home ground.’ Disappointingly Gerrard had ignorantly overlooked the fact they are playing the game in Steaua Bucharest’s, rather than their own home ground the following week but fortunately at no point of the broadcast had one member of the Five ‘team’ referred to him as ‘Stevie G.’ The use of which is my 2nd biggest issue with the modern game.
Benfica v Hertha Berlin
Tuesday 23rd February
Unirea Urziceni v Liverpool & Werder Bremen v FC Twente
Thursday 25th February
Shakhtar Donetsk v Fulham & Juventus v Ajax
Thursday 25th February
Sporting Lisbon v Everton
Thursday 25th February