The next big things and the players to look for
The most telling thing about Liverpool’s season is probably that, had they managed to scrape into second place in their Champions League group ahead of Lyon before Christmas, it would be they who faced nine times European Cup winners Real Madrid and their army of Galacticos this week, instead of the French side.
Instead they play host to Unirea Urziceni, a team very few beyond the borders of Romania had heard of before the back end of last season, and one that had not even played top flight football before 2006.
Perhaps a headline clash with Atletico Madrid, Juventus or Ajax would have provided a more palatable transition from Champions to Europa League, for Liverpool’s fans.
However the players can’t afford to lapse into that mindset, not least because Urziceni have already proven a more than capable outfit at European level, and in truth probably made a better fist of attempting to qualify for the Champions League knock-out stages than Liverpool did this season.
The Romanian champions finished third in Champions League Group G, behind Sevilla and Stuttgart, knocking Rangers out of the European reckoning altogether.
They accrued eight points from their six group matches (one more than Liverpool could muster in Group E, incidentally), in a campaign that saw them win emphatically at Ibrox 4-1, and overcome 2006 and 2007 UEFA Cup winners Sevilla 1-0.
Rangers 1-4 Urziceni - probably not the best moment in Rangers' history...
However it’s not all been sunshine and roses for Urziceni over recent months.
During the winter break, manager Dan Petrescu (him formerly of Sheffield Wednesday, Chelsea and scoring that ruddy annoying late goal against England in ‘98) opted to jump ship in favour of the sizable pay-rise offered by Russian side Kuban Krasnodar.
He will certainly be missed by the Romanian side, having overseen the most successful period in their history after arriving back in 2006, the pinnacle being last season’s unexpected league triumph.
Such was Petrescu’s influence at Urziceni, that he was able to nickname the club ‘the Chelsea of Ialomita’ (Ialomita being the region of Romania in which Urziceni is based), after his former employers in London.
Former Maccabi Haifa coach Ronny Levy has since taken to the helm, with tonight’s clash at Anfield being his first competitive match since taking over.
The Israeli won three consecutive league titles in his homeland between 2004 and 2006, and will be hoping to defend Urziceni‘s title, with his new club one of three tied on 34 points at the top of the Romanian Liga at the half way stage.
But first he'll be looking to frustrate Liverpool, having done so in the qualifying round back in 2006, when his Maccabi side were only undone by an 88th minute Mark Gonzalez (remember him?) goal at Anfield, before holding the eventual finalists to a 1-1 draw in Israel.
The new system implemented by Levy during the club’s mid-season friendlies has been a 4-2-3-1 when defending, switching to 4-1-4-1 when in possession.
This system utilises Urziceni’s main strengths: their solid defence – they’ve only conceded 13 league goals in 17 matches so far this season, having let in 20 in 34 last term – and their ability to soak up pressure and catch teams on the break – a strength Rangers are only too aware of after the Romanians’ win at Ibrox back in October.
This would tend to suggest that Liverpool will need to keep their patience going forward, and also their concentration at the back. Urziceni have the resilience to frustrate the Anfield crowd, who will doubtless be looking for a victory.
While Liverpool certainly should have enough quality to overcome their less illustrious opponents over two legs, what they’ll really need is composure – and that’s exactly what they’ve lacked time and time again this season.
Expected line-up:GK: ArklauskisDR: MafteiDC: GalamazDC: Bruno FernandesDL: BrandanMR: SemedoDM: ApostolCM: PaduretuAM: OnofrasML: FrunzaST: Bilasco
Three to watch out for:
Name: Giedrius ArlauskisDate of Birth: 01/12/1987Place of Birth: Telšiai (Lithuania)Nationality: LithuanianHeight: 184cmWeight: 79kgPosition: GoalkeeperSquad number: 1
Arlauskis made his Urziceni debut in the 2007/08 season, but it was last season that he really established himself as a key member of the side. He made 30 league appearances as Urziceni conceded the fewest goals in Liga 1 and went on to win the title.
Rumour has it that Sevilla and few other clubs in Europe’s more established leagues have been watching the young keeper during the course of this impressive spell.
The Lithuanian is a confident, agile keeper and an excellent shot stopper. However Liverpool may look to exploit his weakness from set pieces – the 22-year-old is not a keeper who will dominate the box by leaving his line to pluck crosses out of the air, instead he tends to stay on his line & lets his defenders deal with the aerial threat.
Name: Pablo BrandanDate of Birth: 05/03/1983Place of Birth: Buenos Aires (Argentina)Nationality: ArgentineanHeight: 181cmWeight: 82kgPosition: Left backSquad number: 19
Now in his third season with Urziceni after signing from Alaves in January 2008, the talented left back is a key figure in a sturdy Urziceni back four.
The Argentine is a skilful player with a nice first touch and excellent dribbling skills, making him a good link between defence and midfield.
e has a tendency to dwell on the ball and sometimes tries to play his way out of trouble rather than just finding a teammate, but he possesses the pace and is a fine tackling ability to get him out of most sticky situations.
Name: Marius BilascoDate of Birth: 13/07/1981Place of Birth: Sighetu Marmatiei (Romania)Nationality: RomanianHeight: 184cmWeight: 79kgPosition: StrikerSquad number: 7
The 28 year old striker had been floating around the Romanian leagues for the best part of a decade before arriving at Urziceni, playing most of his football for Arges Pitesti. He joined Urziceni in January 2007 and has been a regular fixture since.
Bilasco is perhaps not the most technically gifted player, and he’s not the most prolific goal scorer, but what he does bring to the side is a tremendous work ethic – remind you of a certain Dutchman in the Liverpool ranks (not Ryan Babel, obviously...)?
Very good in the air and is quite agile considering his height, Bilasco works hard for the team and is able to keep a cool head in a one-on-one situation, meaning he often benefits from the aforementioned Urziceni counter-attacks.
With thanks to Alexandru Halbac and all at Championship Manager
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