Liverpool v Unirea Urziceni, Europa League, February 18, 2010
Liverpool fans may not like to hear it, but the Europa League is the Merseysiders last realistic chance of silverware this season. Accordingly, however much they wish their match with Unirea Urziceni wasn’t scheduled for Thursday night, it’s a match which they should take very seriously.
The hunch is though, that with Liverpool still locked in a fierce battle for fourth place in the division, and with a vital match with Manchester City next up for the Merseysiders in the league, the Reds ambitions in the Europe are low on Benitez’s priority list. (Liverpool are 7/1 to win the Europa League.)
Liverpool were, until recently, the Premier League’s biggest casualty of the season. They found themselves scrabbling about at the back of the queue for fourth place, out of both domestic cups and relegated ignominiously from the Champions League to the Europa League. A run of seven league games without defeat then pushed the Reds up the table, rebuilding battered confidence, only for things to fall apart at the seams again after they fell 1-nil at Arsenal last time out.
With their form still flip-flopping, Liverpool are suffering from the continued absences to Fernando Torres (knee) and Yossi Benayoun (broken rib). Good news is on the horizon though, with the Spaniard and Israeli having returned to training this week. While in even brighter news, Reds’ vice-captain Jamie Carragher has recovered from a groin problem that saw the centre-half limp off at the Emirates and should be available for selection against the Romanians. (Liverpool are 10/11 to keep a clean sheet, 21/20 against.)
It remains to be seen how many changes Rafa makes to his starting line-up. Diego Cavalieri could replace Pepe Riena between the sticks, while, with new signing Maxi Rodriguez cup-tied, fringe midfielders Alberto Aquilani, Albert Riera and Ryan Babel will all be hoping they’ll get an opportunity to prove themselves in the first team.
That said, Liverpool are unlikely to make too many changes to their regular matchday squad against Unirea. Steven Gerrard is set to lead the side once more, while Dirk Kuyt will be looking to continue his fabulous form of late which has seen the Dutchman net four goals in his last five games. David Ngog, in El Nino’s absence, will again be asked to lead the line as the team’s only recognised forward. (Liverpool are 21/20 to score in both halves.)
Unknown, unfancied and unfashionable, very few on Merseyside will know much about Unirea Urziceni.
The most tangible, and also the most useless piece of information on the Romanians, is that until recently they were managed by former Chelsea defender Dan Petrescu. Petrescu led Unirea to the championship last season, before guiding the minnows through to the group stages in the Champions League where they pushed out Rangers into fourth spot in their group in which Stuttgart and Sevilla progressed.
Now under the management of Israeli coach Roni Levy, the match at Anfield sees Unirea return to the field for the first competitive time since Romania went on their winter break at the middle of December 2009. But Liverpool will not expect Unirea to show too much ring-rust on Thursday night, and Benitez will surely not underestimate his next opponents after they surprised many by trouncing Rangers 4-1 at Ibrox back in October and following that up with a narrow 1-nil defeat of Sevilla at the end of November.
28-year-old forward Marius Bilasco is the star of the show for Unirea. With six goals and two assists in 20 matches this season, Bilasco, known for his lightning pace and keen eye for goal, can be used as either a central striker or on the wing. (Unirea are 7/1 to score in both halves.)
Operating down the left-hand side is experienced Argentine winger Pablo Daniel Brandan. Brandan showed himself to be an accomplished player during the Champions League campaign, capable to whipping in crosses from the left, able to beat defenders with his turn of pace, and happy to take his chance on goal should the opportunity present itself.
Unirea were roundly considered as whipping boys of the Champions League before this season’s tournament got underway, and since they proved the pundits completely wrong. They almost sneaked through to the last 16, missing out on qualification by just one point, and they will be hoping to break down some more stereotypes when the arrive at Anfield. Should Liverpool take their eye off the ball, then yet another humiliating result could be on the cards.
101gg predicts: Liverpool 2 – Unirea Urziceni 0 (11/2)
Full match odds here.