Thursday, 27 November 2014

European fate remains in Reds' hands despite draw in Bulgaria

A late Ludogorets leveller dampened Liverpool’s spirits but did little to affect their Champions League chances.

Their task remains the same as it would have been had they held on to victory; they must beat Basel in the final group stage match at Anfield on 9 December to progress to the knockout stages. Considering his side’s recent run of poor form, Brendan Rodgers will be pleased that the Reds still control their European destiny, although another unconvincing performance blighted by defensive errors is unlikely to turn Liverpool’s season around.

Having arguably hit rock bottom at Crystal Palace on Sunday, Rodgers made three changes to the team, as Toure, Lucas and Henderson stepped in for Lovren, Coutinho and Lallana, who all dropped to the bench.

Unfortunately, the alterations appeared to make little immediate difference, as Liverpool conceded after only three minutes, damaging their already battered confidence. Simon Mignolet, the Belgian keeper who was called ‘worse than Dracula’ by Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar this week, was to blame, although Kolo Toure must receive his fair share of criticism too.

The Ivorian centre back’s poor clearance went straight to Marcelinho when he had the time to clear his lines properly. The number 84’s shot was then embarrassingly fumbled into the path of Dani Abalo by Mignolet, and he easily turned the ball home from close range.

It was a shocking way to the start the game and certainly didn’t bode well for the remainder of the match, but thankfully Liverpool levelled five minutes later with the assistance of some arguably equally atrocious defending from the hosts.

A meek headed clearance of Henderson’s pass was pounced upon by Rickie Lambert, who jumped and headed home from a few yards out to net his second goal in two matches for his boyhood team. It was great to see Lambert get on the scoresheet once again, and if he can continue his goalscoring run against Stoke and Leicester then Balotelli might have a job on his hands forcing his way back into the starting line-up.

Mignolet must improve rapidly

Lambert has taken the opportunity afforded him by Balotelli's injury
Following a frantic opening, the pace of the game began to slow, with Ludogorets looking the most likely to regain the lead, perhaps primarily due to the delicate and fragile nature of Liverpool’s defence.

Yordan Minev exploited a gap in the Reds’ back four to curl over the bar after a quarter of an hour, before Toure was fortunate to see his stabbed clearance from a cross go inches wide of his own goal. Mignolet was also vulnerable, briefly fumbling Fabio Espinho’s 30-yard free kick just after the half hour mark to the amusement of the home crowd.

However, Liverpool somehow entered the interval in front thanks to a goal against the run of play eight minutes before the break. Raheem Sterling, who performed better than he has done recently and whose pace and skill posed the main threat to the Bulgarians’ defence, laid on an inch perfect cross for Henderson, who converted at the back post to give Liverpool an unlikely and arguably undeserved lead.

Henderson gave Liverpool an unlikely lead at the break
More good news emerged from Switzerland at roughly the same time as well, as Cristiano Ronaldo scored to give Real Madrid the lead against Basel, Liverpool’s main rivals for the runners-up spot in Group B.

Needing a win to keep their hopes of clinching second place alive, Ludogorets came out of the blocks quickly, Dani Abalo sending a dipping shot wide of goal soon after the restart before Espinho curled a free kick just over the bar on the hour mark following a foul by Johnson, which the home side protested had actually taken place just inside the penalty area.

Liverpool, meanwhile, after creating but failing to convert a couple of chances to add to their lead, retreated deeper and deeper.

On 65 minutes Lambert’s header was blocked in front of goal and Henderson blazed the rebound over the bar from six yards out after some initial good build up play by Sterling. The 19-year old England international then combined with Gerrard to set up Henderson on another occasion, but this time his shot drifted wide of target.

Liverpool’s final goal-scoring chance came with eight minutes remaining when Gerrard’s pass sent Sterling through, but, struggling with injury by that point, Sterling could only shoot straight at the keeper. He was swiftly replaced by Moreno for the final few minutes.  

Stuck inside their own half, Liverpool came under significant pressure during the closing stages, Cosmin Moti and Junior Quixada missing the target for a Ludogorets side revitalised by a couple of substitutions.

With a depressing sense of inevitably, the Merseysiders eventually caved under the pressure, conceding from a poorly defended corner with two minutes left. Ludogorets won two headers in the box, Dyakov flicking the ball on to Terziev, who beat the sleeping Glen Johnson to power home from close range at the back post.

Why Johnson continues to be picked is beyond me
Ludogorets’ late leveller was deflating, as it deprives Liverpool of the morale boost that would have come with their first win in five. Thankfully, though, it does little to change the Reds’ Champions League chances. Win at home to Basel and they are through; it’s as simple as that. I, for one, cannot wait for what promises to be another European night to remember at Anfield.


No comments:

Post a Comment