Liverpool marked their return to the Champions League after a five-year absence with late drama at Anfield and at the end a potentially priceless 2-1 victory over Bulgarian visitors Ludogorets. After failing to find a way through for more than 80 minutes against a team playing its first ever match in the Champions League group phase, Liverpool looked set for victory when they grabbed the lead through Mario Balotelli’s first goal for the club. But that relief quickly turned to bitter disappointment when Ludogorets scored a shock equalizer on the stroke of 90 minutes through Dani Abalo. Improbably, a further twist still awaited. Deep into injury time, Javier Manquillo was brought down by Ludogorets goalkeeper Milan Borjan and captain Steven Gerrard converted the penalty to finally put Ludogorets to bed.
It could prove to be a crucial goal, too, with Swiss champions Basel and Champions League holders Real Madrid upcoming in Group B. Liverpool will surely have to play better if they are to secure progress to the last 16. Following a 1-0 loss at home to Aston Villa at the weekend, Liverpool restored Raheem Sterling to the starting lineup but were still missing Daniel Sturridge through injury and again struggled to break down diligent opposition.
The best the hosts could offer in the opening half was a couple of lively touches from Balotelli, one seeing him execute a silky turn on the edge of the box but then having his shot blocked by a defender. Brendan Rodgers’ men offered little more in the second half, although Jordan Henderson should have done better with a free header in the 74th minute from Alberto Moreno’s cross. But the matched exploded into unexpected life eight minutes from time.
It started with another Moreno cross, this time Balotelli taking it in and then outmuscling and outwitting a defender before poking the ball into the far corner. It should have been enough to secure the win, but Liverpool’s defensive issues reared their head once more to leave Ludogorets staring at a memorable result. Hamza Younes was allowed too much space to turn in the Liverpool half and look up to pick out at through ball. His fellow substitute Abalo was the recipient and had too much pace for Dejan Lovren and then enough to get round Simon Mignolet before finishing coolly into the unguarded net.
What had been a celebratory Anfield suddenly fell flat. To the great relief of those in red it was only a temporary blow. Manquillo, on loan from last season’s runners-up Atletico Madrid, burst into the box down the right before being met by an out-rushing Abalo. Taking the responsibility, Gerrard, the only player remaining from Liverpool’s Champions League victory in 2005, made no mistake from the spot to give Liverpool a platform to build on in their return to Europe’s elite.