Final, 2-1 Liverpool: The game is over. Liverpool wins in its Champions League return.
It’s fitting that Liverpool’s first Champions League game in almost five years ended so dramatically. While Liverpool outplayed Ludogorets, a team which is inferior on paper, its victory never was certain.
Liverpool struggled to break down Ludogorets for over 80 minutes until Balotelli scored a scrappy, yet utterly important goal. Liverpool should have managed the rest of the game but they lost focus near the end, and Ludogorets exploited a seam in the defense.
It looked like Liverpool’s night would descend from joy to disappointment, but Borjan committed a careless foul on Manquillo in stoppage time, and Gerrard converted the ensuing spot-kick like he always does.
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In this case, the result was more important than the performance, as Liverpool joins Real Madrid atop Group B of the Champions League with three points. Liverpool’s next Champions League game is on Oct. 1 when it travels to Basel to face the best Switzerland has to offer. A win there would put the Reds on course for progression to the knockout rounds.
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90th minute +3, 2-1 Liverpool: Gerrard slots the penalty kick past Borjan. Liverpool leads again.
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90th minute +2, 1-1: Borjan brings Manquillo down in the area. The referee awards Liverpool a penalty.
Borjan is cautioned for the offense.
90th minute, 1-1: Abalo scores for Ludogorets, and the game is tied.
Ludogorets caught Liverpool on the counter-attack.
85th minute, 1-0 Liverpool: Balotelli hits a powerful shot on goal, but Borjan parries it away.
85th minute, 1-0 Liverpool: Espinho comes on for Dyakov. Ludogorets is taking one of its defensive midfielders off and replacing him with an attacking midfielder.
82nd minute, 1-0 Liverpool: Balotelli scores his first-ever Liverpool goal, and the Reds have the lead. Moreno assisted it.
81st minute, 0-0: Minev misses, as Ludogorets nearly catches Liverpool on the break.
76th minute, 0-0: Minev takes down Borini at the halfway line, and the referee cautions him for the foul.
74th minute, 0-0: Henderson heads a shot wide of Borjan’s goal after Moreno found him inside the penalty area with a cross.
72nd minute, 0-0: Abalo comes on for Misidjan, as Ludogorets makes its first substitution.
72nd minute, 0-0: Bezjak hits the post, as Ludogorets nearly takes a shock lead.
Sakho’s clearing header fell to Marcelinho, who fed Bezjak with a pass between the legs of the Liverpool defender. Bezjak bore down on goal and shot off the post.
Minev then gathered the rebound, but his curling shot went wide of Mignolet’s goal.
71st minute, 0-0: Balotelli spins and shoots but he miskicks it, and it goes wide.
Lucas is angry at Balotelli for not passing to him at the top of the area.
68th minute, 0-0: It’s another Liverpool substitution, as Lucas takes Coutinho’s place.
67th minute, 0-0: Rodgers is making a change. Borini comes on for Lallana.
66th minute, 0-0: Mihail Aleksandrov shoots, but it goes wide of Mignolet’s goal.
65th minute, 0-0: Ludogorets threatens on the counter-attack, as Bezjak’s shot goes high and wide — but not by much.
64th minute, 0-0: Balotelli fails to hit the target with his shot.
56th minute, 0-0: Sterling cuts inside and launches a right-footed shot from outside the top of the Ludogorets penalty area, but Aleksandrov blocks it.
54th minute, 0-0: Sterling dribbles past Caicara, and the Ludogorets fullback drags him down.
The referee cautions Caicara for the foul.
53rd minute, 0-0: Henderson floats a pass over the top of the defense to Manquillo, but the Liverpool fullback shot over the crossbar, as Borjan was advancing toward him.
Henderson is doing a good job of finding openings in Ludogorets’ defense in the early part of the second half.
47th minute, 0-0: Coutinho rolls a shot from 25 yards out, but it goes straight to Borjan, who collects it easily.
46th minute, 0-0: The second half is underway at Anfield.
Halftime, 0-0: The first half is over. It’s goalless at Anfield.
Liverpool controlled the game in the first half, as expected, but couldn’t test Borjan more than once. The Reds are passing the ball well and doing a good job of winning it back.
Their problems start in the final third of the field, as they haven’t been able to stretch the compact Ludogorets defense and create openings for Balotelli.
The Champions League is posing similar questions to those Liverpool is seeing in the Premier League this season. When opponents sit deep and clog the middle, it stifles Liverpool’s high-powered attack. When they push forward and leave space behind them, Liverpool can be lethal, as we saw in the counter-attack that Lallana failed to finish in late in the half.
Liverpool must show more patience when it has the ball in the wide areas of Ludogorets’ third of the field. Doing so will draw defenders into those channels, which will give Balotelli, Coutinho, Sterling and Lallana space in and around the penalty area. The Reds could surely use a bit of magic from the injured Daniel Sturridge.
45th minute, 0-0: The referee has added one minute of stoppage time to the first half.
39th minute, 0-0: Liverpool nearly profits from a well-worked move on the left.
Sterling and Coutinho started it at the halfway line. Coutino played it to Henderson, who found Lallana in the penalty area. Lallana mis-hit his shot, and Abel blocked it before clearing it out for a corner kick.
It was Liverpool’s best attacking sequence of the game, so far.
35th minute, 0-0: Moreno shoots from distance but fails to put his shot on target.
29th minute, 0-0: Ludogorets is improving after successfully absorbing Liverpool’s early surges. The Bulgarians are increasing their share of possession and threatening with quick attacks down the wide areas.
Ludogorets hasn’t created any scoring chances yet, but we sense the visitors will not be overrun by crowed or overawed by the atmosphere at Anfield.
22nd minute, 0-0: A Ludogorets attack leads to a dangerous sequence for Liverpool.
The Reds countered with speed, and Balotelli would have had an effort on goal, but Aleksandrov blocked his shot. Afte an ensuing scramble, the ball came to Sterling, who shot but did so from an offside position.
15th minute, 0-0: The Reds’ dominance of the ball is increasing, but they haven’t managed to trouble the goalkeeper Borjan yet.
Liverpool is having no problems advancing into Ludogorets’ third of the field, but the final pass hasn’t been accurate enough to create scoring chances.
Ludogorets is also doing a good job of defending in numbers and pushing too many players forward on the counter attack.
10th minute, 0-0: The game had a hectic start, but Liverpool is settling into a nice passing rhythm. Defensively, the Reds are swarming around Ludogorets, quickly denying the visitors space in which they can operate.
Fifth minute, 0-0: Aleksandar Aleksandrov is cautioned for a foul on Sterling.
Sterling was surging forward when the Ludogorets center back cynically brought him down.
Kickoff: Liverpool-Ludogorets is underway at Anfield.
Pregame: Liverpool makes one change to the starting lineup it used Saturday against Aston Villa.
Sterling returns to the first 11, replacing the suspended Markovic. In an effort to prevent Sterling, 19, from burning out, Rodgers put him on the bench to start the game and brought him on in the 60th minute.
Sterling, Lallana, Mignolet, Henderson and Moreno are making their Champions League debuts.
Marcelino and Bezjak will lead Ludogorets’ attack. Monti will marshal the visitors’ defense from the middle, while captain Dyakov will organize the unit from his deep-lying position in the midfield.
2:15 p.m.: Here are the lineups:
Simon Mignolet (22), goalkeeper
Alberto Moreno (18), left back
Mamadou Sakho (17), center back
Dejan Lovren (6), center back
Javier Manquillo (19), right back
Steven Gerrard (8), midfielder
Jordan Henderson (14), midfielder
Philippe Coutinho (10), midfielder
Raheem Sterling (31), forward
Adam Lallana (20), forward
Mario Balotelli (45), striker
Brad Jones (1), goalkeeper
Jose Enrique (3), defender
Kolo Toure (4), defender
Lucas Leiva (21), midfielder
Suso (30), forward
Rickie Lambert (9), striker
Fabio Borini (29), striker
Milan Borjan (26), goalkeeper
Yordan Minev (25), left back
Aleksandar Aleksandrov (15), center back
Cosmin Moti (27), center back
Junior Caicara (80), right back
Anicet Abel (12), midfielder
Svetoslav Dyakov (18), midfielder
Marcelinho (84), midfielder
Virgil Misidjan (93), forward
Mihail Aleksandrov (7), forward
Roman Bezjak (9), striker
Gosponidov (1), goalkeeper
Brayan Angulo (16), defender
Fabio Espinho (8), midfielder
Hristo Zlatinski (23), midfielder
Wanderson (88), midfielder
Dani Abalo (17), forward
Hamza Younes (99), striker
1 p.m. ET: After almost five long years, the wait is over.
Liverpool returns to the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday when it hosts Ludogorets in its group-stage opener at Anfield. The Reds hope to progress to the knockout rounds of European soccer’s elite competition, and a win over the Bulgarian champion will start their campaign on the right note.
Manager Brendan Rodgers leads a new-look Liverpool into European adventure for the first time in his career, and many of his players will experience their first “Anfield Night.”
The likes of star forward Raheem Sterling and newly minted vice-captain Jordan Henderson will look to veteran Steven Gerrard for guidance and inspiration, as they make their Champions League debuts, while new signings Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno hope to establish themselves as Kop heroes with strong performances.
While Liverpool’s return to the Champions League is the stuff of dreams, Ludogorets’ debut in the competition is a nothing short of a fairytale. Four years ago, Ludogorets was an amateur club, but it climbed up the divisions, won Bulgaria’s A Group (first division) three-straight seasons and finally qualified for the Champions League group stage this term courtesy some goalkeeping heroics by Romanian defender Cosmin Moti.
Liverpool lost to Aston Villa in the Premier League on Saturday. The Reds aim to rebound quickly against Ludogorets.
Liverpool-Ludogorets kicks off at 2:45 p.m. Stay right here for all the action from Anfield.
Photo via LiverpoolFC.com