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For the first time in six years, Europe's second-tier competition returned to the red half of Merseyside. The last time the famous old ground hosted the Europa League, it was still called the UEFA Cup as Marseille ground out a one-all draw in March 2004.

A banner depicting manager Rafael Benitez alongside Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish ,in the style of communist Russia propaganda, looked on from the Kop as the Anfield faithful found themselves feeling a little unfamiliar with a competition which had served as scant recognition of continental importance a decade previous.

The novelty of competing on the continent had worn off following five consecutive appearances in the Champions League and a relatively sterile first half testified how poor a relation the new-format competition was to Europe's premier competition.

UEFA's decision to trial additional referees in this year's tournament further highlighted the differences between the continental elite and its second-rate alternative with the home supporters bewildered by tracksuited officials standing on either end of the field of play.

Steven Gerrard had warned Liverpool's critics to write off Benitez's side at their peril and almost opened the scoring with a close range shot which Giedrius Arlauskis palmed away after some good build-up play by Dirk Kuyt.

The Dutchman, who had also grown accustomed to sporting Champions League emblem on his shirt, went agonisingly close some 10 minutes later but saw his effort deflected wide for a corner whilst Fabio Aurelio angled a free-kick wide of Arlauskis' left-hand post on 14 minutes.

Unirea failed to make a lasting impression on the game in the early stages aside from Sorin Frunza's low-struck free kick but, like Marius Onofas' audacious 40-yard effort, the ball once again found itself in the arms of Reina who remained untroubled throughout the first half.

At the other end Albert Riera had better luck and threatened Unirea's goal numerous times in the first half-hour with a series of efforts that caused panic amongst the Romanians' defence.

David Ngog also went close 10 minutes before the interval when the Frenchman, who has divided opinion within the Kop jury, fired an effort wide on the turn during one of his less impressive appearances in a red shirt this season as both sides failed to demonstrate any real intent.

Liverpool began the second half in the same manner they had started the first as Gerrard glanced a header wide of the Kop goal before Aurelio fired an effort wide.

Benitez, meanwhile, introduced Ryan Babel on 62 minutes in a bid to instill further pace and firepower into his ailing troops. However the much maligned winger failed to inspire the Kop as he repeatedly allowed himself to be herded off the ball by the Romanians.

A gaffe by Daniel Agger almost gifted the lead when he intercepted a ball destined for Reina to collect that broke to Frunza who could only steer his effort out of play. Martin Skrtel, the Dane's defensive partner, should have done better when he headed Aurelio's corner over the crossbar on 70 minutes.

Alberto Aquilani, who had once again failed to justify his £20 million price tag, was replaced by Dani Pacheco minutes later and the Kop's faith in the untried Spanish starlet during a drab team performance was evident as they chanted his name.

The former Barcelona prodigy provided an able assist for David Ngog 10 minutes from time when he nodded an Aurelio ball across the face of the goal for the former Paris Saint Germain hitman to power a diving header home.

Gerrard attempted to double the advantage but hit a curling 20-yard effort just wide of Arlauskis' goal as Liverpool continued to enjoy the lion's share of chances but failed to build on their lead.

The home side appealed for a penalty after Pablo Brandan tackled compatriot Javier Mascherano on the edge of the area in the opening seconds of stoppage time.

Despite the victory, Anfield's first taste of the Europa League left the 40,450 crowd feeling slightly despondent ahead of next week's return leg in Bucharest.


FINAL SCORE: LIVERPOOL 1 UNIREA URZICENI 0


LIVERPOOL: Reina, Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Aurelio, Mascherano, Aquilani (Pacheco 74), Kuyt, Riera (Babel 62), Gerrard, Ngog (Lucas 89). Subs (not used): Cavalieri, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Degen.

UNIREA URZICENI: Arlauskis, Manel, Galamez, Fernandes, Brandan, Paraschiv (Vilana 86), Onofras (Marinescu 74), Paduretu (Rusescu 90), Apostol, Frunza, Bilasco. Subs (not used) Tudor, Mehmedovic, Nicu, Bordenu.

Attendance: 40,450

Referee: Eric Braamhaar (Netherlands)