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Ngog spares Reds’ blushes

LIVERPOOL (1) v/s UNIREA URZICENI (0)

CAPTAIN Steven Gerrard insists Liverpool are still on course to win the Europa League despite struggling to a home leg victory over Romanian side Unirea Urziceni at Anfield.

Rafael Benitez’s side enjoyed plenty of possession but failed to break down their defence-minded visitors until David Ngog struck with a close-range header nine minutes from time.

Like Liverpool, Unirea come with pedigree having qualified by finishing third in their Champions League group, and Gerrard believes his side will get more joy when they make the return trip next Thursday.

“They were very stubborn but we expected that,” the England midfielder admitted. “You could say maybe we needed to be a bit more clinical but I think we’ll get more joy away from home. But we were patient and the goal came.

“They’re going to have to come out and try and beat us in the second leg. The teams knocked out of the Champions League are fantastic teams and some of the top sides across Europe are in the competition so it’s going to be tough to win it but we’re confident we can go all the way.”

Playing in Europe’s second-tier competition for the first time since 2004, Benitez fielded a string Liverpool side but found the going tough from the outset with the Romanians defending deep. Gerrard was denied early on by keeper Giedrius Arlauskis, while Ngog shot inches wide.

But chances came few and far between with Unirea, who hadn’t played for more than two months due to the Romanian winter break, seemingly happy to put men behind the ball and pack the defence.

Martin Skrtel headed over from six yards, while Fabio Aurelio brought a good save from Arlauskis. But Liverpool eventually got the break they deserved on 81 minutes – Ryan Babel’s deep cross headed back across goal by fellow substitute Daniel Pacheco for Ngog to fire home.

Gerrard could have doubled the lead seconds later with a rasping drive that went inches wide, leaving the Reds to settle for a precarious one-goal advantage.