Europa League Football: Liverpool v Unirea Urziceni

Thursday 18th February 7.30pm

The knockout stages of the Europa League begin with this Round of 32 clash between Liverpool and Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni. The Reds make their bow in the competition with Rafa Benitez in desperate need of silverware. The action is presented by Colin Murray with Pat Nevin and Stan Collymore. Commentary comes from Dave Woods and Graham Taylor.

The latest twist in a season of strife at Anfield sees Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool making their debut in the Uefa Europa League. The Reds were dumped out of the Champions League before Christmas having taken just seven points from six games. Losses to Fiorentina and Lyon conspired to send Benitez’s misfiring team out of a league that was once their natural stomping ground.

The manager has had little respite on the domestic front, with Liverpool languishing in fifth place in the Premier League after 23 games – 11 points adrift of the top three. A dreadful performance against Reading saw the club dispatched from the FA Cup, piling yet more pressure on Benitez’s shoulders. Critics have attacked the club’s decisions in the transfer market and point to Liverpool’s overreliance on injury-hit Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. The latter faces a devastating six-week layoff for a knee injury, which will keep him out of this key Europa League tie.

To make matters worse, upheaval behind the scenes has set supporters firmly against the club’s owners. Tom Hicks Jr was recently forced to resign from the board after a row with a fan. This incident, combined with the ongoing speculation of a possible sale and the ever-present worry of Liverpool’s debts, has made the season as rotten off the pitch as on. Recent speculation has linked Benitez with a move to Juventus. Will the struggling Spaniard still be in charge when Unirea Urziceni come to play?

Liverpool’s opponents, meanwhile, recently missed out on becoming the first Romanian team in 13 years to reach the last 16 of the Champions League. The club finished third in their group, one point behind VfB Stuttgart, chalking up an impressive 4-1 away victory against Rangers and a 1-0 home win over Seville along the way.

The side’s success is all the more startling given that the club only reached the Romanian top flight in 2006. The town of Urziceni boasts 17,000 inhabitants and its stadium holds just 7,000. Urziceni have been playing their European home games in Steaua Bucharest’s stadium nearby. In the Romanian Liga 1, Unirea Urziceni are currently second, level on points with the leaders, CFR Cluj, and third-placed Steaua. However, Urziceni suffered a blow in December when former Chelsea star Dan Petrescu stepped down as manager to take over the reins at FC Kuban Krasnodar in Russia.

Urziceni’s new coach is Roni Levy, former manager of Maccabi Haifa and Maccabi Petach-Tikva in Israel. As manager of Haifa, Levy faced Liverpool in the third qualifying round of the Champions League in 2006. On that occasion, Benitez’s men beat Levy’s side 3-2 over two legs. Doubtless Levy will be looking for revenge in this week’s muchanticipated contest.

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