Liverpool end their run of four straight defeats but more costly errors help to deny them a morale-boosting victory…
Liverpool went into their potentially crucial Champions League Group B fixture in Bulgaria still missing a host of players through injury.
Vice-captain Jordan Henderson was the only man unavailable for Sunday’s demoralising 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace to return for a game the Reds dare not lose.
The midfielder was joined in a more rigid looking line-up by experienced European campaigners Lucas Leiva and Kolo Toure.
Brendan Rodgers‘ side couldn’t have hoped for a worse start as Ludogorets took a 3rd minute lead via a swift counter-attack.
Simon Mignolet could only parry Marcelinho’s awkward, long-range effort into the path of Dani Abalo and the Spaniard, also a goal scorer when the teams met at Anfield, clinically dispatched the follow-up.
As is usually the case these days, Liverpool didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory defensively for the goal as the hosts ran largely unchecked from their own box before Toure failed to clear sufficiently when an opportunity to do so arose. The less said about Mignolet’s latest mishap, awkward bounce or not, the better.
Thankfully, it was a short-lived deficit as the Merseysiders quickly capitalised on a defensive error at the other end.
Cosmin Moti was the man at fault, misjudging a looping ball, perhaps in the expectation that goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov would come and claim, and allowing Rickie Lambert to finish from close range.
It had been an incredibly open start to the game with Ludogorets in particular carrying a constant threat, primarily down their left through the pacy Virgil Misidjan.
Liverpool were twice reliant of timely interventions from Toure as the hosts quickly threatened to retake the lead.
A number of set-pieces also caused panic in the visitors’ error-prone backline and in particular for a nervy Mignolet.
Rodgers’ side did have a decent opening of their own as the half hour mark approached but Raheem Sterling‘s strike lacked conviction and sailed over.
The teenage winger did a lot better a few minutes later though when his brilliant low cross from the left was neatly turned home at the far post by Henderson.
The goal appeared to have a stabilising affect on the men in red as they closed out the half on the front foot and with a couple of spells of good possession and passing.
Ludogorets again started the second half brightly and had half chances to level through Abalo, Fabio Espinho and Mihail Aleksandrov.
Although appearing slightly more solid at the back, much of Liverpool’s attacking play was now confined to the break with Sterling the usual outlet.
Proceedings became somewhat disjointed as the match passed the hour mark with stoppages for injuries and fouls increasingly common.
Liverpool looked all set to score a third in the 62nd minute but Henderson was left thanking the referee’s whistle for sparing his blushes after the midfielder had blasted the simple chance over the bar.
Unsurprisingly, with the Bulgarians needing a win to have any chance of staying in the competition, they began to pile the pressure on in the closing stages.
A couple of deflected efforts had Mignolet scrambling before a corner led to a goalmouth scramble and an opportunity for Moti, which the defender badly sliced off target.
A host of attacking substitutions by Lodogorets manager Georgi Dermendzhiev should have been in vain when a fantastic pass by Steven Gerrard set Sterling away inside the final 10 minutes but Stoyanov rapidly advanced from his goal and smothered the danger well.
Unfortunately, as they are so often at present, Liverpool were made to pay soon afterwards as Georgi Terziev headed home an 88th minute corner following a near post flick-on.
It was a cruel blow just as the Reds looked set to end their terrible run with a hard-fought three points.
Although it’s obviously hugely disappointing to concede a late equaliser, the goal, which on the balance of play Ludogorets probably deserved, changes absolutely nothing. Even with a win, Liverpool would still have needed to beat FC Basel in their final fixture on December 9. The point, coupled with the Swiss side’s 1-0 defeat at home to Real Madrid, now at least means the scoreline becomes irrelevant; a Reds victory at Anfield by any margin will see them advance.
With regards to the performance, it was a somewhat disjointed showing in which periods of promise were interspersed by familiar spells of panic and poor decision making.
That said, it was a huge improvement on the weekend with a far greater desire and goal scoring threat on show. Although the latter may have been partially down to Ludogorets looking almost as shaky at the back as us!
Fielding many of the squad’s more experienced players clearly helped give the Reds greater familiarity and balance and there are at last some reasons for optimism and a platform from which to hopefully build.
Of course it was still far from brilliant and things will quickly go back to being a ‘crisis’ if Liverpool fail to beat Stoke City on Saturday afternoon.
Raheem Sterling – I was one of a growing number of people who felt it was probably time to give the struggling youngster a rest but this was his best showing for several months. The 19-year-old’s direct running caused Ludogorets all sorts of problems and he should have capped a fine individual performance with a goal to add to the excellent assist.
Mignolet, Manquillo, Skrtel, Toure, Johnson, Lucas, Allen, Henderson, Gerrard, Sterling (Moreno 82′), Lambert.
Unused subs: Jones, Lovren, Can, Lallana, Coutinho, Borini.
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