After a five year absence, Merseyside finally hosted a long-awaited European night in the Champions League.
Anfield was clearly buzzing with anticipation as the Reds hosted little-known Bulgarian champions Ludogorets. Yet the crowd would have to wait for a flurry of action in the final minutes to see Liverpool salvage a 2-1 victory.
The match started some pace and urgency for the first few minutes before fouls started to slow things slightly. It only took six minutes before the first yellow card of the match when Aleksandar Aleksandrov tripped Raheem Sterling on the left touchline ending a potential break.
With the early energy and anxiety yet to burn off, Liverpool pressed hungrily to regain possession whenever they lost the ball and looked to get forward quickly in the early going. However, classy touches were in short supply until things would settle.
Ten minutes into the match Alberto Moreno streaked down the left flank, penetrating into the box before launching a cross well high and beyond the goal. It was indicative of most early crosses overhit with the surge of Champions League circumstances. Still, Moreno began well, routinely overlapping Sterling, to lash crosses into the penalty area.
Fifteen minutes in Liverpool had a half chance as Adam Lallana found Mario Balotelli centrally in the penalty area with his back to the goal. Unfortunately, his first touch left him wanting and the set-up was squandered.
Ludogorets would prove that there are few easy fixtures in the Champions League and gave the Reds an early scare as Junior Caicara worked a nice give-and-go and drove deep into midfield before sending a curling whipped ball in behind the Liverpool defensive line, just missing an onrushing striker Roman Bezak. It was the kind of splitting pass, straight through the central defense, that would nearly haunt the Reds. The visitors began growing in some confidence after that gaining some time in their attacking third briefly midway throughout he opening half.
In the twenty-first minute, Sterling lead a flurry of Red attempts with Balotelli breaking free at the top of the penalty area for a shot that deflected to Lallana who drove into the right side of the box, firing a shot that was saved before bouncing out to an offside Sterling. It was the first spark of Liverpool getting bodies crashing forward.
A few minutes later, Dejan Lovren nearly gave away what would have been a soft penalty, but Ludogorets by now had found some positive energy to carry them forward with al little more intent. Having not capitulated to the early Liverpool press, and helped by a spell of poor passing from the Reds, the away side showed resolve and refused to be intimidated but he occasion or the ground.
Despite surrendering a handful of corners, the Reds defense looked strong defensively. Simon Mignolet, in particularly was taking command of the area and securing the ball with poise.
Perhaps the best attack of the half came in the thirty-seventh minute when Sterling released Phillipe Coutinho on the left side. Racing forward Coutinho found Henderson cutting into the box. Although Henderson could not find a shot, he found Lallana who pulled a quick shot that deflected back to him for a second effort only for it to be smothered by the defender, spinning out for a corner.
With the opening of the second half, Liverpool looked to move the ball with more purpose and intent, but still lacked the quality of the final touch to spring any clear cut chances, much like their weekend stumble against Aston Villa.
As second half settled, Ludogorets looked more and more at sitting deep, blunting attacks with tactical but not reckless fouls, and then counter with pace down the flanks. They continued to get at least eight men behind the ball and proved difficult to break down.
Despite a sustained push by Liverpool, in the 64th minute a quick Ludogorets throw nearly caught Liverpool, as Bezjak surged forward only to find the post after putting the ball passed a stretched Mignolet.
A couple of minutes later, Fabio Borini entered the match for Lallana and Lucas for Coutniho. The team shape would adjust as Borini would push higher to pair with Balotelli and Sterling slid centrally in the hole behind the strikers.
The match began to turn with less than ten minutes to go, beginning with Moreno streaking in for a match-winning challenge in the Reds box, then working his way to the other end of the pitch to cross an excellent ball into Balotelli who knocked it down and finished with a classy outside-of-the-foot flick at the Kop end for his first goal as a Red.
Balotelli did give a ball away that started a Ludo burst forward until Lucas fouled to give a central free kick about 30 yards from goal.
Ludogorets swapped Svetoslav Dyakov for midfielder Fábio Espinho in the 82nd minute and Younes Hamza for Bezjak in the 86th.
In between the subsitutions, Balotelli pushed into the box from the left and unleashed a blistering shot that forced newly signed keeper, Milan Borjan, to parry, with Sterling unable to find the rebound.
In what seemed like the closing minute of the match, Caicara dispossesd Sterling just outside visitor’s the penalty area and found Hamza, who spuns and delivered a splitting through ball between Lovren and Mamadou Sakho. Ludogorets’ striker Dani Abalo slipped behind Lovren and had an easy time finishing as Mignolet madly raced out and into no-man’s-land, exposing an open goal.
Less than a minute later, Javier Manquillo’s pressed the Ludogorets’ keeper Borjan, along the right edge of the box, into a desperate and poor challenge, winning a penalty. Gerrard ensured the win, slotting a penalty into the lower right corner.
Despite surrendering an away goal to the Bulgarians, Liverpool earned a victory in what could only be described as a scrappy and challenging match. The Reds still look like a side trying to find their way back to the swashbuckling form they exhibited last season, with fits and starts, but struggling to find the familiarity and fluidity needed to reduce touches and anticipate movements of teammates.
They certainly had moments of pinging the ball back and forth in the midfield, probing for depth and using the width, but they again struggled to find ways behind a disciplined, low, and retreating defensive block. It is a problem for which they will need to find a solution sooner rather then later to continue winning with consistency over a crowded cluster of fixtures.