Liverpool were far from their best against Ludogorets Razgrad but a pragmatic Brendan Rodgers has bestowed the virtues of securing the three points?
Liverpool’s return to the heady heights of the Champions League against Bulgarian surprise package Ludogorets Razgrad ended up being a bit of a slow burner but it eventually caught fire in a dramatic climax.
A first goal for the club from Mario Balotelli in the 82nd minute initially looked set to be the winner only for the spirited visitors to find an injury time equaliser after the men in red inexplicably over-committed men forward.
Fortunately for the hosts, there was still time remaining for Steven Gerrard to rescue the three points from the spot after Javier Manquillo had been fouled by debutant goalkeeper Milan Borjan.
The win, albeit secured through another largely disjointed performance, could prove crucial in the final Group B reckoning with Liverpool expected to progress alongside defending champions Real Madrid, who defeated Basil 5-1 over in Spain.
“We showed great determination,” evaluated Brendan Rodgers at his post-match press conference. “At times, we had quality in our game and just in that final third of the field we couldn’t make the final pass.
“But tonight was about perseverance, if I was to describe the team. It’s an attribute you need to have, especially at the highest level. We just persisted – we kept going, working and pushing. The whole ground really appreciated that.
“It’s a competition that is about winning games and sometimes you’ll play well and maybe not get a result.
“It was always going to be a tricky tie for us because they’re the champions of their country and there are not too many bad teams in this competition.
“Technically, they were very good. We had to show patience and change the shape of the team from 4-3-3 to a diamond to try to work some more space in the area.”
Elaborating on the quality of the opposition, Rodgers continued: “You saw from tonight they will cause problems for teams. They have got some very good technical players on the break, they are fast.
“When you play in Sofia, there will be 60,000 supporters there. They won’t be easy games. What’s important in the competition is if you can win your home games and pick up points away from home, it gives you a great chance to qualify.
“We can do no more than win tonight. We’re not at a standard that we were last season; we’ve got a lot of adaptation going on with new players coming in, and even though they fit the profile of how we work, it’s still a new team.
“We’re still a work in progress but while we do that, it’s important that we can win games. To win in the Champions League is always good.”
One man who knows more than most about winning in the Champions League is Balotelli.
The mercurial Italian won the competition whilst with Inter Milan in 2010 and has featured regularly in the intervening years for Manchester City and, most recently, AC Milan.
Despite an encouraging debut at Tottenham Hotspur prior to the international break, the 24-year-old was subdued for long periods last night, as he had been in the defeat to Aston Villa at the weekend.
Often a player’s success at a new club, or lack thereof, can be determined by a single defining moment; a key contribution, a missed chance, an injury, a sending off.
Hopefully therefore, Balotelli’s exquisite strike will prove to be just the beginning of a long and fruitful love affair with the Kop.
“When the cross came in, he showed great physical strength, a touch, and then the finish was a brilliant one,” analysed Rodgers. “It was wonderful technique with the outside of his foot. It’ll give him a whole load of confidence.
“On top of that I thought he worked very hard tonight – he worked and was pressing. He’s still adapting and still trying to get fit because he’s been behind the others in pre-season.
“He showed his quality tonight and that got us the goal.”
There is clearly work still to do however and the Northern Irishman is keen to see Balotelli operate further up field.
“I just feel he needs to be in the box more,” added Rodgers. “Because of his link-up play, he drops in. I said to him at half-time, just make sure when the ball is in wide areas you’re penalty spot in, rather than penalty spot out – he finds himself pulling back outside the box for the cut-back a lot of the time.”
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