Steven Gerrard and Mario Balotelli Liverpool LudogoretsBrendan Rodgers said it, so we don’t have to:

“We can do no more than win tonight,” Rodgers said Tuesday following Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Lodogorets in the UEFA Champions League, via Liverpool.com.

“We’re not at a standard that we were last season; we’ve got a lot of adaptation going on with new players coming in, and even though they fit the profile of how we work, it’s still a new team.”

While Liverpool won its grand return to European soccer’s elite competition, the manner of victory didn’t inspire the confidence of those who expect the Reds to perform at a higher level than they did last year.

Steven Gerrard buried a spot kick in second-half stoppage time to win the game, but the first “Anfield night” in five years nearly ended in doldrums. In the 82nd minute, Mario Balotelli put the Reds in front when he scored his first goal for the club. Eight minutes later, Ludogorets’ Dani Abalo tied the score, which wasn’t unduly harsh on Liverpool based on the quality of the Bulgarians’ performance and the menace they posed on the counter-attack throughout the game.

Rodgers and Liverpool fans were understandably livid about conceding at that point in the game. Then Ludogorets goalkeeper Milan Borjan rescued Liverpool by senselessly fouling Javier Manquillo inside his own penalty area to set up Gerrard’s latest Champions League heroics.

The result was positive for Liverpool, as it looks to make its first Champions League campaign in five years a “successful” one by progressing out of the knockout rounds. Liverpool will travel to Bulgaria later this year. It also will play Basel and Real Madrid twice. It had to win Tuesday, as the game was nominally the easiest in its slate of six group-stage games.

However, Liverpool’s performance against Ludogorets, coupled with its four Premier League outings in 2014-15, bring us back to Rodgers’ point. Liverpool toiled and won Tuesday. It treated Anfield denizens to a similar displays in its win over Southampton on opening weekend and its loss against Aston Villa Saturday.

This season, Liverpool has dominated possession and territory against weaker opponents but created few scoring chances against well-organized defenses that sit deep in their own half. Liverpool has enough attacking resilience to score from neutral positions, but opponents are frustrating the Reds with their tactics. Chelsea created the blueprint with its 2-0 win at Anfield in late April.

Liverpool struggles against deep-seated defenses. In these scenarios, Rodgers often changes the formation — from a 4-4-2 diamond to a 4-3-3 or vice-versa — around the 66th minute. It worked against Southampton and Ludogorets but not against Aston Villa. But the problem could lie in Rodgers’ philosophy, not the system.

Liverpool’s new players still are learning to play the “Liverpool way” under Rodgers. Meanwhile, opponents are learning how to limit Liverpool’s quick and powerful counter-attacks, which leads to games where the Reds have plenty of possession but little menace. Rodgers must add a layer of patience and invention (especially in wide areas) to Liverpool’s approach play, in short a “plan B.”

And then there’s the matter of Liverpool’s defense. It’s not sturdy enough, and the Reds have paid a high price for losing focus at pivotal moments.

It takes time for new players to adapt and for standbys to evolve. The same games for Rodgers.

But the games come thick and fast in soccer’s unforgiving calendar. It’s better to win them than to lose, as Liverpool works out the kinks.

“We’re still a work in progress but while we do that, it’s important that we can win games,” Rodgers added. “To win in the Champions League is always good.”

Liverpool-Ludogorets live blog >>

Mario Balotelli scores first Liverpool goal >>

Liverpool must turn green to red to achieve Champions League success >>

Photo via LiverpoolFC.com