The opposition may be a team that few in attendance will even have heard of just a few weeks ago, but that is unlikely to dampen the buzz around Anfield on Tuesday evening. After five long years in the relative wilderness, Liverpool are back at Europe’s top table and back in a competition they have won five times -- more than any other English club. For manager Brendan Rodgers, the match with Bulgaria’s Ludogorets is the realization of achieving the primary objective set when he took charge two years ago.
“We're very excited,” he said, according to Liverpool’s official website. “Five years is a long time -- December 2009 was the last game here at Anfield in the Champions League. We've earned the right to be here. We've worked very hard in the last couple of years and now we have to keep improving, we have to keep sustaining our performance level and we have to improve on our performance level. Tomorrow night will be extremely special -- because it's in the Champions League and because it's here at Anfield. Every day is a huge privilege for me to manage at Liverpool and tomorrow night will be exactly that.”
While mouth-watering encounters with the most successful club in European Cup history, Real Madrid, follow in a group that also contains experienced European campaigners Basel, Liverpool dearly need to get off to a winning start at home to Ludogorets. After taking full advantage of the ability to focus almost solely on the Premier League last season by achieving a second place finish, Liverpool have already experienced the difficulty of juggling the duel commitments of domestic matters and the Champions League.
Raheem Sterling was left on the bench for the first hour against Aston Villa on Saturday, with the upcoming heavy fixture list in mind. Without the 19-year-old who has been Liverpool’s key attacking weapon so far this season, Liverpool slumped to a hugely disappointing 1-0 home defeat. Rodgers has confirmed that Sterling will be back in the starting lineup on Tuesday, but there will again be no place for Daniel Sturridge, whose absence with a thigh injury was also felt at the weekend. Defenders Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan also remain unavailable, as does Martin Skrtel, despite the Slovakian having returned to training on Sunday.
As much as it will be a significant night for Liverpool, it will be an even more memorable one for their opponents. At the opposite end of the European pedigree scale to Liverpool, Ludogorets will be playing their first match in the Champions-League-proper, just 13 years after forming in Razgrad, a town with a population of around 33,000 and the smallest involved in this year’s group phase. Although the fact that they have been bankrolled to their recent success by Kiril Domuschiev to their recent success -- including three consecutive league titles -- there was certainly a fairytale element to the way in which they secured their place in the group phase.
Tied 1-1 on aggregate in their playoff with Steaua Bucharest entering the final two minutes of extra time, Ludogorets saw their goalkeeper Valdislav Stoyanov sent off, and, with all three substitutes used, were forced to put defender Cosmin Moţi in goal for a penalty shootout. A few minutes later the Romanian, who formerly played for Steaua’s rivals Dinamo Bucharest, made himself a hero with two saves. A trip to Anfield first up is a fitting reward.
Prediction: Liverpool struggled desperately to break down Aston Villa on Saturday, with new arrivals Mario Balotelli, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic failing to sparkle. It was certainly enough to encourage Ludogorets that they can frustrate Liverpool similarly, while potentially taking advantage of a Liverpool backline that is still less than secure. And Ludogorets are not quite the inexperienced whipping boys they might initially appear, having beat PSV Eindhoven and Lazio in the Europa League last season en route to reaching the last 16. But, in front of what should be a stirring atmosphere at Anfield, a Liverpool team with Sterling in from the start should emerge with a secure opening win.
Liverpool 3-1 Ludogorets
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 2