Mascherano's brilliant strike was only his second goal in three years at Liverpool
By Harry Reekie
Liverpool eased into the last 16 of the Europa League and maintained hopes of silverware this season with a simple win against Unirea Urziceni in Romania.
Woeful defending allowed Joao Bruno Fernandes to head the hosts in front early on but Javier Mascherano equalised with a fine long-range drive.
Ryan Babel controlled and fired home a terrific second before Steven Gerrard's shot squirmed under Giedrius Arlauskis.
The Reds will now face Lille in the next round after they beat Fenerbahce.
It was hardly a vintage Liverpool display but manager Rafael Benitez will not care a jot, with victory the only objective in a competition representing their only realistic chance of a trophy this season.
On the same day 12 months ago, a Yossi Benayoun goal saw the Reds claim a famous away win in the Champions League against Real Madrid.
But while this triumph will not live as long in the memory, it was arguably just as important as Liverpool look to salvage something from a disappointing campaign.
In truth, Unirea looked a shadow of the side that destroyed Rangers 4-1 at Ibrox earlier in the season but did trouble their more esteemed visitors from set-pieces throughout.
The Reds' zonal marking system looked all at sea once more and it was no surprise that a failure to pick players up was directly responsible for Unirea's opening goal.
Fernandes was allowed to stroll into the box without a care in the world and, direct from a Razvan Paduretu corner, the big defender powered a header past Pepe Reina to level the tie at 1-1 on aggregate.
It was a supreme example of how not to defend a cross, and little more than the hosts deserved after a bright start.
Liverpool looked devoid of ideas early on but quickly drew level through Mascherano's excellent goal.
Confusion in the Unirea area saw a half-clearance dribble to the Argentine midfielder 25 yards out and a powerful strike flew into the back of the net.
Paduretu continued to impress for the hosts, despite the setback, and tested Reina to the full with a long-range drive shortly after.
Dreadful Liverpool defending allowed Fernandes to head Unirea in front
But the visitors effectively secured their passage to the next round with Babel's fine strike just before half-time.
A free-kick from Gerrard curled in from the right and the Dutch winger demonstrated deft technique to pull the ball down in an instant, swivel and fire home.
Unirea started brightly again after the break but their already bleak hopes were dashed when Gerrard slotted in Liverpool's third.
Benayoun jinked his way into the area and dragged a scuffed pass to his captain, and the England midfielder duly took advantage with a low finish.
Liverpool reduced the match to a training ground exercise for long periods thereafter, but Benitez's hopes of an injury-free night were ended when defender Martin Skrtel was stretchered off after injuring his foot in a challenge with Antonio Semedo.
The loss hardly affected the Reds, although they were indebted to Reina for a point-blank save from Marius Bilasco late on.
Benitez will travel back to England more satisfied than inspired but if his side are to avoid playing in the same competition next season, the Spaniard will know further victories in the Premier League against Blackburn on Sunday and Wigan a week on Monday are equally essential.
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