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Reds Europa League mission accomplished

IN THE city where legend has it Dracula resided, Liverpool’s understudies finally showed their teeth.

It wasn’t pretty and it won’t live long in the memory but Roy Hodgson left Bucharest with what he came for. This was mission accomplished. Job Done.

A point ensured the Reds will progress from Group K as winners and passports can be safely stored away until the Europa League knockout stage gets underway in mid-February.

The final group game at home to Utrecht in a fortnight can be treated as little more than a training exercise.

This was a test of character and a shadow Liverpool side passed it. One high profile English team may have embarrassed itself yesterday but this one refused to be beaten by Eastern European opposition.

Of course it could have been even better. Having gone ahead courtesy of Milan Jovanovic’s first half header and soaked up plenty of Steaua pressure, Pepe Reina’s blunder gifted the hosts an equaliser.

How ironic that on the night Liverpool’s fringe players were in the spotlight, one of their most experienced and talented players should flounder.

But Reina, so often the hero, will be quickly forgiven for his late contribution to the festive DVD of goalkeeping bloopers.

The closing stages were safely negotiated to ensure the journey made by the 200 committed souls in the away end wasn’t in vain.

There was certainly no doubt where Hodgson’s priorities lie as he made no fewer than 10 changes from Sunday’s defeat at Spurs.

Premier League points come before European success and with Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher both sidelined the boss was loath to risk his star names ahead of Monday’s Anfield meeting with Aston Villa.

Only stand-in skipper Reina retained his place from that heartbreaking setback in the capital.

Hodgson had thrown down the gauntlet to those on the fringes to rise to the challenge and force their way into his plans.

There was a first appearance since September for Danny Wilson and Daniel Pacheco, while there were also starts for fellow youngsters Jonjo Shelvey and Martin Kelly.

However, despite the inexperienced feel to the side Hodgson still put out seven full internationals.

Steaua are the most decorated club in Romania’s history having clinched 23 titles but the 1986 European Cup winners have fallen on hard times. Their last championship was four years ago and they are way off the pace again this season down in seventh place.

The 4-1 hammering they suffered at Anfield back in September led to the departure of Ilie Dumitrescu who was replaced as coach by Romanian legend Marius Lacatus.

Victory over Utrecht on matchday four had raised their hopes of progressing to the knockout stage and roared by a passionate support they flew out of the traps.

In treacherous conditions the Reds endured a torrid opening and had to weather the storm.

Impressive left-back Iasmin Latovievci tore forward to good effect but Steaua’s best attacking weapon was the green laser being shone in Pepe Reina’s face from the home fans.

The Liverpool bench reacted furiously to the fourth official but despite their pleas the keeper continued to be targeted.

Sitting deep, the Reds were inviting pressure and were fortunate not to fall behind in the 16th minute. Romeo Surdu’s cross picked out Eric Bicfakvi but he nodded wastefully over.

Three minutes later the Reds went in front with their first meaningful attack.

Jovanovic has struggled to prove why Liverpool were so keen to land him from Standard Liege last summer.

But the Serbian finally displayed a glimpse of the talent he’s been hiding. After a mazy run he picked out Ryan Babel and then arrived in the box to expertly nod the cross into the far corner.

It was Liverpool’s first on the road in Group K having fired blanks away to Utrecht and Napoli.

Despite their attacking threat, Steaua looked vulnerable defensively and Liverpool should have swiftly added to their tally.

More good work from the lively Ryan Babel put it on a plate for Joe Cole but his first touch let him down and the chance went begging.

Hodgson hoped this game would kick-start Cole’s Anfield career after the red card against Arsenal and subsequent injuries had damaged his confidence.

However, too often Cole picked the wrong pass and he remained firmly on the periphery. After a long absence he clearly needs games to get back up to speed.

Steaua finished the first half with a flourish and should have levelled the contest.

The ball dropped kindly for 15-goal top scorer Bogdan Stancu but he inexplicably blazed wide with the goal at his mercy.

Lacatus’ men had only lost once in six games at home to English opposition and that was at the hands of Arsenal in the Champions League three seasons ago.

It had taken a Djimi Traore goal to earn the Reds a 1-1 draw here in the UEFA Cup in 2003 and after the break Steaua poured forward in search of an equaliser.

Geraldo Alves was gifted a free header six yards out but his weak header allowed Reina to save.

Lone frontman Babel helped to relieve the pressure with some slick touches and put in the kind of shift rarely seen during his time at Anfield.

But Steaua continued to press and got their reward in farcical fashion just past the hour mark.

Eder Bonfim’s tame header looked to pose little danger but Reina was distracted by Romeo Surdu ducking in front of him and somehow allowed the ball to squirm between his legs and over the line.

The impressive Sotirios Kyrgiakos rattled the bar with a header from Fabio Aurelio’s corner but Steaua always looked the more likely to find a winner with Nicolita and Stancu going close. But Liverpool survived to take a significant step on a road they hope will lead all the way to Dublin in May.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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