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Champions League - Steven Gerrard scores late penalty to save blushes Liverpool 2 Ludogorets Razgrad 1

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Liverpool
Liverpool2 - 1Ludogorets Razgrad
  • M. Balotelli82
  • S. Gerrard90+3
  • Dani Abalo90+1
Ludogorets Razgrad
Anfield
FT

We knew Liverpool wanted to repeat history on their Champions League return, but we did not anticipate they would try to cram in so much on opening night.


All the usual European customs were meticulously obeyed at Anfield in the 2-1 win over Bulgaria’s Ludogorets Razgrad. A late flourish at the Kop end; a sense of euphoria replacing despair; a Liverpool side on the brink clawing back victory in improbable circumstances.


We have been here before, this stadium immediately reacquainting itself with the kind of theatre that makes it so iconic.


As late European goals go, Steven Gerrard’s last-minute penalty against Ludogorets 1945 will not sit alongside that of Olympiakos, 2004.


In the context of an extraordinary return to the elite group on a typically stirring Merseyside evening, the Liverpool captain might come to consider his winner one of the most important of the current era of Anfield regeneration.

The last seven minutes proved a microcosm of European campaigns gone by, as Mario Balotelli thought he had won it after 83 minutes with a majestic finish with the deftest of touches, only for substitute Dani Abalo to believe he had claimed a point after hapless Liverpool defending.


From rekindling memories of glorious late Champions League winners of the past, the Kop was faced with recalling their most recent campaign in 2009 when 90th-minute goals by Lyon and Fiorentina sent the club out at the group stage.

Anfield relief arrived courtesy of goalkeeper Milan Borjan inexplicably pulling down Javi Manquillo in the third minute of injury time, enabling Gerrard to claim three points that already feel fundamental to further progress.

Ludogorets had been granted special dispensation to play Canadian Borjan, who only signed on Friday, but as he bundled Liverpool’s right-back to the ground, their manager may have wished he had stuck with Cosmin Moti between the posts – the centre-half whose saves brought the Bulgarians this far.

So began Liverpool’s Champions League refresher course. This is why the competition is so embraced here. The Uefa anthem was received with the rapture of a Merseybeat favourite, and never have advertising boards and footballs branded with a competition name been greeted with such enthusiasm.

You got the impression even the prawns were given the red-carpet treatment as they made their way to the Uefa sponsored sliced bread.

This, Liverpool believe, is their entitlement. To restore a tradition, where once European minnows were humbled leaving with only their photographs of the Shankly Gates to cherish. Times have changed in the last five years. Ludogorets wasted little time to prove even the most unfashionable of clubs can no longer be dismissed. If Liverpool were not here to be ‘tourists’ as Brendan Rodgers had put it, there was no evidence the Bulgarians had only come to stock up in the Anfield megastore.

The visitors had numerous opportunities to take the lead, particularly in the second half when Liverpool’s attacking intent became more frenzied and the hosts were vulnerable to counter-attacks. Junior Caicara’s 25-yard drive needed pushing aside by Simon Mignolet, and both Mihail Aleksandrov and Roman Bezjak shot narrowly over. Bezjak was even closer when he struck the post with Mignolet well beaten on 72 minutes. They deserved more.

Liverpool were nowhere near the level of last season - a point Rodgers conceded in his post-match assessment - their main failing a lack of penetration to match possession and perseverance. Philippe Coutinho’s radar seems to be temporarily malfunctioning, and Adam Lallana is yet to settle.

In Sturridge’s absence, the onus is on Balotelli to provide forward impetus but he must do more to ensure the cartographers need protective gloves when handling his heat map.

Balotelli’s early Liverpool career has been characterised with lethargy until the ball lands at his feet. When it does get to him, however, the star quality is apparent. Twice he threatened before half-time, cleverly turning Aleksandar Aleksandrov before the defender made a timely block of a goalbound shot.
Rescue act: Steven Gerrard, once again, saved Liverpool with a lst-gasp penalty at the Kop end Photo: ACTION IMAGES


Balotelli then forced Borjan into his first save on 34 minutes, taking responsibility on the edge of the penalty area before unleashing with his right foot, albeit tamely. It was a reminder what he is capable of, and seven minutes from time he looked to have scored the winner.

The close control in the penalty area and subtle finish was everything Liverpool have lacked without Daniel Sturridge and a certain Uruguayan. If Balotelli finds his goalscoring momentum, the free-scoring nature that typified Rodgers’ style last season can be restored.

When Younes Hemza sent Abalo clear for the 90th-minute equaliser, Rodgers was faced with the prospect of an inquest focusing on lack of goals, lack of creativity and lack of defensive concentration.

Instead, with the assistance of a goalkeeper who did not even have a club a week ago, he will be mapping out a route to the knockout stages if Liverpool secure a positive result in Basle in a fortnight.

With Gerrard’s 29th Champions League goal - his 40th in all European competition - those Anfield generators which tend to go full throttle on European nights were powering up again. If this finale is a taste of what is to come, it will be like they’ve never been away.

Credit : Telegraph

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