Nearly five years later, Liverpool are back. Ideally they'd be making their Champions League return on the heels of a resounding, statement of intent style victory and not a passive, whimpering loss in league action, but regardless, Champions League nights are back at Anfield, and tomorrow will be an event we've all been waiting for. It has been, as Brendan Rodgers noted this morning, too long.
It's also been too long in the sense that tomorrow's match can't come quickly enough after Saturday's loss against Aston Villa; Liverpool couldn't find a way through an organized, compact Villa defense after conceding the early goal, and they were frustrated at every turn in the 1-0 loss. Tomorrow will hopefully be a different story, and if they're going to mark their return to the Champions League with a win, it'll have to be.
Ludogorets arrive as the clear underdogs in Group B, but their record domestically and in European competition means they can't be overlooked completely. They're on the back of three straight Bulgarian A Group titles, and last season they won Bulgarian Cup before adding to their trophy cabinet with a SuperCup victory in August. Last season also saw them progress to the round of 16 in the Europa League; along they way they notched victories over the likes of PSV Eindhoven and Dinamo Zagreb in the group stages and a 4-3 aggregate win over Lazio in the round of 32.
They finally cracked the group stages of the Champions League this season after struggling to do so the past two years, and the manner in which they did so was one of the better stories of qualifying. As most already know, their two-legged playoff with Steaua Bucharest went to penalties--both sides won their home fixture 1-0--but with Vladislav Stoyanov sent off for his second yellow card and all their substitutes used, defender Cosmin Moti had to fill in for the penalty shootout. Naturally, he converted his penalty and then saved two of Steaua's, including the final spot-kick, to send Ludogorets into the Champions League proper.
After eight matches in domestic competition this season they sit fourth, just two points off first-place CSKA Sofia. They're yet to lose but have dropped points in two of their last three matches, with draws away to Lokomotiv Sofia and Beroe before getting back to winning ways last time out against
Blotev Pavliv Botev Plovdiv. Their biggest bit of squad news in recent weeks is that they signed Canadian international goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who had been a free agent and should start in goal.
Beyond that, there's an excellent Fanpost by community member Divchev, which includes the following bit about what we can expect:
Don't expect them to go out at Anfield and park the bus (at least I don't see it that way). They have many foreign players and for the small time they are on the "football picture", they played a good number of European games and gained experience. Like I said in (the comments section of) one of the articles, Ludo has depth as well and without any tension in the championship their players will stay fresh.
Manquillo Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Gerrard Coutinho
Sterling Balotelli Lallana
Fitness-wise it looks like Liverpool are largely in the same spot they were ahead of the Villa match, with Glen Johnson, Joe Allen, Martin Skrtel, Jon Flanagan, Emre Can (who's also suspended anyway), and Daniel Sturridge ruled out through injury. Lazar Markovic is suspended after receiving a red card in the semi-finals of last season's Europa League.
Rodgers' squad will get their first taste of the quick turnaround they've earned by virtue of participating in the Champions League this season, and they should largely be able to cope, especially once the names above return. In defense there don't appear to be any need for changes when it comes to fitness; Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho are both healthy, as are Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno in the fullback spots, so they should start again tomorrow night.
Steven Gerrard will probably start every Champions League match this season unless he's ruled out through injury, Jordan Henderson is the fittest player in the squad and will retain his place in the midfield, and with Joe Allen still out, Philippe Coutinho should drop back into the midfield again. Allen's absence was felt on Saturday in a largely anonymous midfield display, and while Coutinho is still struggling for form, another opportunity will hopefully get him back on track.
There will most certainly be a return for Raheem Sterling, and the only question appears to be whether or not he's at the tip of the diamond with Mario Ballotelli and Rickie Lambert/Fabio Borini as strikers or in a wide role opposite one of Coutinho or Adam Lallana. Lambert's been very good off the bench this season and at least gives Rodgers another option later in the match with Markovic suspended, and while Borini came on against Aston Villa, he hould be on the bench again given the absence of Markovic and his relative lack of influence on Saturday.
Kickoff is set for 7:45PM BST/2:45PM EST, with ITV1 carrying coverage in the UK and Fox Sports Two airing the match live in the US. Our coverage will start with the overnight open thread tonight and carry into the matchday post early tomorrow, which will have team sheets an hour before kickoff. Hope you'll be around to join us--if you haven't already, sign up for an SBNation profile and stick around.