The magic and drama of Champions League nights at Anfield is seemingly alive and well despite the five-year break…
Few supporters had heard of Ludogorets Razgrad when the draw was made for Liverpool’s return to the Champions League but they certainly know all about them now.
Despite edging the contest 2-1 in a dramatic finale, the Merseysiders were pushed all the way by the dangerous and technically proficient Bulgarians.
It was far from a vintage performance but much of that was down to Ludogorets and the way they performed with desire and gusto, executing their game plan almost to perfection.
The contest had been a fairly even affair with opportunities infrequent before kicking into gear in an entertaining final 25 minutes.
Whilst the groundsmen fixed a broken net at the Anfield Road end, Brendan Rodgers made a telling double substitution, sending on Lucas Leiva and Fabio Borini for Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana.
Their introduction facilitated a shift in formation to a diamond midfield with Borini offering Mario Balotelli some much needed support up top.
As a result the game instantly became much more open, although for a time it was the visitors who looked more likely to score on the break.
In addition to being thwarted by some last-ditch tackles and wayward attempts from distance, Roman Bezjak hit the post with Ludogorets’ best opportunity after a fine through-ball by the impressive Marcelinho.
Finally, with the boisterous home crowd becoming increasingly nervous and the game well into the closing stages, the desired breakthrough came.
A cross from full-back Alberto Moreno found Balotelli on the left-hand side of the six-yard box and, after holding off his markers and swivelling his body to face the goal, the Italian steered the ball into the far corner of the net with the outside of his right foot.
It was a fine first strike for his new club by the £16m signing who had earlier started to look increasingly isolated and frustrated.
The joy was soon tapered however as eight minutes later, and with the game entering stoppage time, Liverpool over-committed in search of a decisive second.
Ludogorets disposed Raheem Sterling and launched a swift thrust forward which ended with substitute Dani Abalo latching onto Younes Hamza’s pass and rounding the poorly-positioned Simon Mignolet.
Anfield has seen more than it’s fair share of late drama down the years and remarkably there was more to come as a third goal in a little over 10 minutes snatched the three points for Liverpool.
The energetic Javier Manquillo made a lung-busting run to pressurise a back-pass and it paid dividends as debutant goalkeeper Milan Borjan miss-controlled the ball and then felled the Spaniard.
Right on cue, up stepped the dependable fulcrum that is Steven Gerrard to secure the fairytale ending everyone connected with the club craved.
Although a tad harsh on the visitors, this was a much needed result given the makeup of the group and Saturday’s demoralising league defeat to Aston Villa.
There is clearly plenty of work still to do but that is hardly surprising with so many new players to integrate and a host of others currently out injured.
Hopefully, with the pressure less intense and the onus less on Rodgers’ men, they can express themselves more and take another step forward when they visit West Ham United this weekend.
In the other opening game in Group B, defending champions Real Madrid thrashed Basel 5-1 at the Bernabeu.
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