Fully five years after they last participated in the Champions League, Liverpool kicked off their 2014/2015 European campaign in typically exciting fashion, requiring late drama at Anfield to pick up all three points from their first group stage match against Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets on Tuesday night.
Mario Balotelli’s first goal in a Red shirt eight minutes from time appeared to have won the game for the hosts, but substitute Dani Abalo exploited some poor defending to seemingly break Liverpool hearts in the last minute of normal time. Thankfully, Ludogorets pressed the self-destruct button in injury time, keeper Milan Borjan foolishly conceding a needless spot kick, which skipper Steven Gerrard dispatched with archetypal coolness to seal a much-needed confidence boosting win for the Merseysiders.
There was a tangible sense of anticipation heading into the contest, as everyone associated with the club was delighted to be experiencing Champions League football at Anfield once again after so long away from the European elite.
|The Kop produced a stunning pre-match mosaic|
Even with teenage sensation Raheem Sterling back where he belongs in the starting line-up, Liverpool started slowly and never really got going during a frustrating opening period in which the visitors more than held their own. As against Villa, Liverpool dominated possession, having over two-thirds of the ball but lacking a creative cutting edge, as Balotelli dropped increasingly deep and Ludogorets’ defence was rarely tested.
In fact, the Bulgarian side even possessed an attacking threat and were arguably unlucky not to have been awarded a penalty on the half hour mark, as Dejan Lovren riskily shoved Marcelinho off the ball rather too enthusiastically in the box. It would have been a soft spot kick, but it certainly fell into the ‘seen them given’ category, and it came as a surprise that referee Matej Jug, who up to that point had lived up to the stereotype of an overly fussy European official, refused to point to the spot.
At the other end, Balotelli saw a couple of shots saved, before Liverpool produced the best piece of football of the half seven minutes prior to the interval. Sterling and Moreno combined beautifully down the left wing, and the ball was then worked to Lallana in the penalty area via new vice-captain Jordan Henderson. Unfortunately, the former Southampton man couldn’t claim a goal on his European debut, as the ball got stuck beneath his feet and his effort was eventually blocked.
|Lallana squanders a gilt edged chance as he struggles to get the ball out from underneath his feet|
However, as time passed and the minutes remaining for the Reds to find a winner dwindled, the home supporters became understandably increasingly anxious, and that was transmitted to the pitch as well, Manquillo nervously snatching at a shot and lofting the ball high over the bar when he should have done better after being put in by Henderson’s pass.
The similarities with the Villa match continued with just over twenty minutes left, as manager Brendan Rodgers made a double swap once again, replacing the tired Lallana with Borini and introducing Lucas for the out-of-sorts Coutinho as the Reds reverted to a more adventurous but less stable diamond formation.
Instantly Liverpool looked more likely to break the deadlock, as Borini and Henderson both had headed efforts, the former being turned over the bar by Borjan and the latter rolling agonisingly wide of the far post.
Roman Bezjak provided Liverpool with a stark reminder of Ludogorets’ threat on the counter attack as he fired a low shot against the post, but Balotelli appeared to have won the match for the Reds when he netted his first goal for his new club on 82 minutes.
In typical Balotelli fashion, the Italian scored a brilliant and hugely important goal despite doing very little else during the rest of the match. The number 45 juggled Moreno’s cross away from surrounding defenders and then superbly smashed the ball into the net with the outside of his right foot, before celebrating in front of the Kop with his characteristic fist pump.
|Who else but Balotelli?|
Unfortunately, Liverpool’s defending was as questionable as the Ludogorets’ stopper’s goalkeeping, and they paid the price for some sloppiness at the back in the last minute. Sterling lost the ball in Ludogorets’ half and Younes Hamza played a great ball through the Reds’ wide open defence to fellow substitute Abalo, who took advantage of Mignolet’s foolish decision to rush out of his goal and side-stepped the Belgian before comfortably firing home an arguably deserved equaliser.
The hosts could have had few complaints if the match had ended all square, but thankfully they enjoyed a slice of luck in the third of four minutes of injury time, which allowed them to clinch a desperately needed win.
Manquillo epitomised Liverpool’s never-say-die attitude by being in Ludogorets’ box in the dying moments looking to create something to help the Reds’ claim what at that stage was an improbable win. Fortunately, goalkeeper Borjan miscontrolled a pass and then tripped Manquillo in the box as he tried to recover. The referee rightly awarded a penalty and, as he has done so many times before, Gerrard did the rest from the spot, converting from 12 yards to score his 40th European goal and win the match for Liverpool.
|Stevie saved the day with a last gasp goal from the spot|
If Liverpool’s future Champions League performances can replicate the quality of the atmosphere at Anfield on Tuesday evening, then Brendan Rodgers’ men should have no problem getting out of group B and potentially progress far in what is arguably the best competition in the world.
One thing is for certain; it’s great to be back!