Liverpool don't need to win against Ludogorets on Wednesday night, at least not if Real Madrid beat Basel. Yet coming off a defeat to Crystal Palace, with four losses in a row in all competitions, and having played their worst football under Brendan Rodgers over the past month, it's hard not to see this as a must-win match. And in Bulgaria as they will be on Wednesday, Ludogorets have proven a surprisingly difficult opponent.
The Bulgarian side have so far held Real Madrid to a narrow 1-2 victory before going on to beat Basil 1-0 at Stadion Vasil Levski in Sofia, and they know that a victory tomorrow night would give them a realistic chance of advancing to the knockout rounds. If it wasn't for the fact that doing so would come at the expense of Liverpool, it's the kind of story many here would be rooting to see unfold—and surely a great many who aren't Liverpool fans will be.
Ludogorets currently stand second in Bulgaria, five points behind CSKA Sofia after 16 games of a 26 match season, and while they have only scored three goals in their four Champions League group matches, they've scored 32 times in league play—good for two goals per match on average. They spread their goalscoring around, with five players having scored three or more goals, though top scorer Dani Abalo has only notched five.
Abalo, a 27-year-old Spanish winger, scored their only goal at Anfield after he came on in the 72nd minute. This time around, with Ludogorets starting to believe they have a real shot at qualifying for the knockout rounds, Abalo—who has played in every league match of theirs so far this year—will be expected to start. Ahead of him, Brazilian striker Marcelinho is the other player most likely to provide a scoring threat.
After Sunday's crushing defeat to Crystal Palace, it wouldn't be a shock to see a few members of Liverpool's "b-team" as against Real Madrid. Injuries, though, will play a role in selection. Mamadou Sakho remains out of the running, while Mario Balotelli is doubtful as he continues to recover from a minor groin injury suffered while on international duty. Jordan Henderson, who missed Sunday with an illness, is likely to return and could captain the side.
The biggest question is at the base of midfield, where no matter what formation Brendan Rodgers chooses there's likely only going to be room for two of Emre Can, Jordan Henderson, and Joe Allen. While it's tempting to pencil in a start for Can, who was Liverpool's best player against Chelsea right before the international break, Joe Allen deserves it just as much for being one of the few bright spots against Crystal Palace.
It's seems just as likely, then, that we'll see Can along with Allen or Henderson with Can—regardless of whether it's 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 diamond. It's also entirely possible Steven Gerrard starts again because this is as close to must-win as one can get without it technically being must-win. Though based on recent results and how jaded the captain looked on Sunday, that seems as though it would be the wrong call.
In the more attacking band, there are similar question marks, and Lazar Markovic would seem to deserve a start after his strong showing in Liverpool's last Champions League match. Sterling, who remains out of form and looked worse than Coutinho or Lallana on Sunday, would seem the obvious person he would replace in a meritocracy. At the back, there should be no question as to whether Alberto Moreno returns.
Kickoff is set for 7:45PM GMT/2:45PM EST on Wednesday, with Sky Sports providing coverage in the UK and Fox Soccer Plus carrying the match in the US. Our coverage will continue with the overnight open thread tonight and carry into the matchday a few hours ahead of the match tomorrow, with team sheets an hour before kickoff. Hope you'll be around to join us, and if you haven't already, sign up for an SBNation profile and stick around.