Liverpool’s 1-1 draw against Steaua Bucharest in Romania clinched a spot in the knockout round — and the top spot in the group barring a loss, Steaua win, and six-goal shift in differential — but it’s hard to say that much else was achieved.
Thursday was set to be an opportunity for many of Liverpool’s young players and reserves to prove themselves — and the only thing that was proved was that the team hasn’t moved beyond its problem with hapless, defensive footy against lesser competition.
Did the defense play well? The only goal conceded resulted from Pepe Reina‘s usually sure hands failing him, but that doesn’t remotely tell the story. Steaua won 10 corners against Liverpool — not exactly the sign of good defense. In fact, if Steaua had been remotely competent in making final passes or in finishing, the scoreline would have likely looked much different. Martin Kelly and Danny Wilson repeatedly let players in behind them. Sotirios Kyrgiakos, the only regular of the 2010 season in the back-line, conceded a should-be goal when he was beaten on a cross in from the right — only to be bailed out by an abysmal finishing effort.
In midfield, there was absolutely no aggression. Steaua won longball after longball and was continually able to gain hold of the ball — good for 60 percent of the game’s possession (about what you’d expect if Liverpool were playing Barcelona). Liverpool did not press in response, but moved their midfield lines all the way to the edge of the final third. The most common state of play was for Steaua to hold the ball on the edge of Liverpool’s half — searching for a way in — and that state evolved more commonly into Steaua creating opportunity than it did Liverpool countering.
When Liverpool did counter, they had ample space to do so. Steaua’s defensive spacing left a lot to be desired, and they over-committed forward despite a lack of pace at their back. Countering should have been easy, and on occasion, Ryan Babel looked strong in doing so. He made incisive runs, held up the ball relatively well, and his cross to Milan Jovanovic was a great delivery. He did, however, lack a final ball on most other occasions, and he dribbled out of chances on occasion. Still, he was far more active than the nearly absent Dani Pacheco and Joe Cole.
Nathan Eccleston and David Ngog didn’t solve the problem, either, and while the team had a flurry of energy directly after conceding (they won two corners in a matter of minutes), their resolve lasted only briefly before Steaua again looked more likely to score. In fact, Liverpool had one actual chance in the entire second half — a Kyrgiakos header off the top of the bar. In the run of play, they did nothing.
Somehow, if it were not for Reina’s uncharacteristic error (though his vision was blocked by a Steaua player on the header), Liverpool would have left Romania with three points, but Roy Hodgson wanted more out of this matchup. He wanted to find players whom he could trust for bigger moments — players whose performances would excite the fans — and that, surely did not happen.
At this stage of the Europa League, teams can get away with mediocrity. When the knockout stage begins, however, that won’t be the case.