Just like we imagined, right? The anthem, the patches on the sleeves, the noise booming around Anfield ahead of kickoff, and then three goals in the final eleven minutes--including two goals in injury time--to tie it off. Liverpool's return to the Champions League was nearly the stuff of nightmares, but they finish the night with an important three points.
Liverpool 2: Balotelli 82' Gerrard (pen.) 90+3'
Ludogorets 1: Abalo 90'
There weren't any surprises in the team sheet for Liverpool, with Brendan Rodgers bringing Raheem Sterling back into the starting eleven for the suspended Lazar Markovic as the only change from Saturday's loss to Aston Villla. That meant ten starters from the weekend were in action, hopefully with the promise of greater cohesion and, with the occasion and build-up carrying plenty of emotion, a stronger start.
We mostly got that, at least for the opening ten minutes or so, as Liverpool poured forward and pressed more aggressively than at the weekend. There wasn't any payoff, however, and early pressure gave way to a more relaxed tempo that allowed the visitors to find their footing and, on one or two occasions, piece together an attacking move of their own.
Chances came at both ends despite some sloppy--and likely nervous--play, with a neat turn and shoot by Balotelli blocked before Lallana's follow-up effort was saved, and Lallana later scuffing a shot after a quick break through Coutinho and Henderson. Ludogorets had a number of half-chances, including a very good penalty shout on Lovren when he pushed out at but couldn't test Simon Mignolet's goal with any sort of frequency.
The second half was largely the same, and a quick flurry of chances at both ends could have seen either side take the lead. Fabio Borini and Lucas had come on for Lallana and Coutinho, with Rodgers shifting to a 4-4-2 diamond from whatever was going on for most of the first hour, and Borini forced Milan Borjan into a reflex save with a sharp header minutes after coming on. Ludogorets hit the post at the other end through Roman Bezjak, and the points were, unfortunately for Liverpool, entirely up for grabs.
Then a goal-saving tackle by Alberto Moreno swung the balance in Liverpool's favor; the young fullback shot back to block an open shot in front of Liverpool's goal and, later in the same passage of play, provided the cross that would lead to the opener. Balotelli controlled with his chest and managed to stay with the ball through two defenders, and his poked effort curled away from Borjan into the side netting to give the hosts the lead.
It all looked settled from there, but another breakdown at the back allowed Liverpool to draw level. Lovren was caught too far up the pitch with little cover from Gerrard or his defensive partner, and as at Manchester City, Mignolet wandered away from his goal to leave a gaping hole for the opposition. It was easy for Dani Abalo in the end, and in the 91st minute it looked as though Liverpool's return to the Champions League was going to end in tears.
Instead Javier Manquillo, one of the other standouts on the night, burst forward and drew a penalty and yellow card on Borjan, which was coolly converted by Steven Gerrard for the lead. Ludogorets managed one last corner, but Mignolet gathered harmlessly and the three points were secure.
Not pretty, not easy, and not something we'd like to see repeated, at least in terms of the performance. For the second match running, Liverpool were largely underwhelming and buoyed only by the quality and industry of their young Spanish fullbacks, with an attacking contingent that continues to look unfamiliar with one another and a general lack of consistency throughout the side. Three points trumps it all, but three points are anything but guaranteed with performances as shaky as that one.
The good on the night was largely down to Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo, both of whom put in tireless shifts and were responsible for Liverpool's two goals. Moreno looked nervous early but still impressed for most of the ninety minutes, including the run of play that saw him save a likely goal and help create one almost immediately at the other end. Manquillo had chances in front of goal and won the penalty, and his work defensively was again solid as part of a back line that, as a whole, was anything but.
Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard acquitted themselves well as individuals despite the fact that the midfield was largely anonymous; Philippe Coutinho was about as bad as he's been since coming to Liverpool, with little influence yet again as part of his worrying early season form, and while each of Adam Lallana, Mario Balotelli, and Raheem Sterling worked hard up top, little was clicking. For Lallana it looks to be a matter of fitness, for Balotelli a matter of understanding his role as the figurehead in attack, and for Sterling a matter of having limited influence out wide.
For all the frustrations, though, it was still a win in the Champions League, and it's likely that we'll see Liverpool kick on from here. This side is still getting settled, still getting used to each other, and still figuring out their identity. That's an awfully tall task with so many concerns about form and fitness in the squad, but they'll need to be address regardless of who is or isn't available.
Thankfully those concerns can be addressed on the back of three points in the club's first Champions League match in nearly five years rather than on the heels of a disappointing result.