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Plus ca Change...

Say what you will, when the final whistle went Liverpool had begun their Champions League campaign with a victory but it was uncomfortable viewing and the result was reliant, once again, on the captain scoring in dramatic circumstances.

In retrospect, it was probably a bit cruel to celebrate quite so effusively having scored against a man with no head
In retrospect, it was probably a bit cruel to celebrate quite so effusively having scored against a man with no head
Clive Brunskill

The more things change, the more they remain the same, as some philosophical French chap once probably opined. Last night, whilst Liverpool fans everywhere bathed themselves in the soothing balm of relief after beating Ludogorets at home in injury time, this concept would not leave your scribbler's poor addled mind. One did not need a PhD in media analysis to predict the headlines, as frazzled hacks everywhere gratefully filed their copy, the narrative and headline of which had been supplied by Steven Gerrard.

The Huyton man would be credited with riding to the rescue of his club, pulling them up by the bootstraps and other assorted clichés, and indeed, the pleasing sang froid and clinical technique that the captain displayed in his execution of that late, late penalty was a joy to behold. However, his decisive strike served as a smokescreen, masking a plethora of glaring issues surrounding the performance of the team and the skipper himself.

This was not enjoyable. The expected celebratory atmosphere never materialised as the players struggled to reflect their technical superiority and the giddy revelry of the pre-match pageantry soon dissipated as Liverpool laboured and Ludogorets were given the encouragement to dream. It was remarkable to experience just how quickly the parping delights of the famous music faded in the face of a lack of cohesion and bite from those donning the famous Red shirts. This was not, as some myopic sorts have suggested, a lack of effort on the part of Rodgers' players. There was simply a dramatic disconnect as the pieces on the chess board seemed to move without a discernible strategy.

On a few occasions there were glimpses of the kind of delightful opposition-tormenting interplay that one associates with these footballers. On other, rarer, occasions, there was that wonderful swarm and snap as they sought to regain possession, but for the most part the bite, aggression and passing élan we have come to associate with Rodgers' team was upsettingly absent. Not many could brazenly stride forward and insist they had played well but Alberto Moreno, Javi Manquillo and Jordan Henderson had no cause for embarrassment. By contrast, Philippe Coutinho had another night to forget, as did Dejan Lovren and Reds' custodian, Simon Mignolet.

Gerrard, speaking to Gabriel Clarke of ITV afterwards, was understandably relieved but his comments were as honest and balanced as one could hope for in the circumstances. The captain's media game is beautifully on-point these days and he used the opportunity to focus not on his own de rigeur heroics but on the need to improve as a team. When in front of the cameras, the Anfield legend is a savvy operator, however, and he seems to have learnt something of the dark art of media manipulation from his manager because the one man he did sensibly single out for praise was the notoriously temperamental Mario Balotelli, focusing on his post-match-selfie mate's application as much as his goalscoring prowess.

"You've got to give him [Balotelli] credit - he's come in and everyone's waiting for him to get that first goal," insisted Gerrard. "It never went his way for long periods tonight but the sign of a good goalscorer is to be relentless, keep going, keep going to the end because it only takes one chance. When you've got that ability, it only takes one chance. But I think more important than the goal was his work-rate. I think all the fans and me and the team were waiting to see how he'd fit in and I thought he worked his socks off. That will do for me.

"It's always nice to win the game when you think you're going to drop two points and you get a decision like that at the end. It was the right decision, but on the game as a whole we did okay - we didn't do any better than okay. We've got a lot to learn. I thought they caused us quite a few problems, just like Aston Villa did, on the counter-attack, so me and the lads have got a lot to learn. We go away to Basel now and if we get maximum points then it puts us in a very good position. At Liverpool, we always analyse what we've done and I think to judge that performance [vs Ludogorets] is 'must do better'."

Gerrard was in a more bullish mood before the kick-off. His discomfort and irritation at not being part of the biggest show in town since Liverpool's elimination in 2009 is quite pronounced. He retains a degree of stoicism which is typical of the man but one can easily discern the hurt of exclusion and the raw determination he has, regardless of his age, to progress in this year's competition. Mere participation is no consolation. Liverpool's iconic number 8 wants to leave an impression. Encouragingly, he believes there is a harmonious relationship between the club's ownership and management and that success may be close.

"Maybe you forget how lucky you are,’ he said wistfully recalling the halcyon days of Rafa Benitez's reign. "When you are consistently getting to the latter stages and popping up in finals, it was such an unbelievable achievement. But I’ve got confidence that might not be too far away, if the owners continue to back Brendan Rodgers as they have done. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Brendan and in the squad. Listen, I’ll put it another way. If we go out in the group stages, or the last 16, we will be majorly, majorly disappointed. We want to progress. We want to go as far as we can.

"This can’t be a one-off. This can’t be, 'Isn’t it great where we are?' This isn’t a reward for finishing second last year. I don’t see it as a reward. This is where Liverpool should be — and should be consistently. It’s the responsibility of myself and the players to give it our best crack. It is important that we have got the Champions League next year as well. The players who haven’t sampled this and then get a taste of it — once they have had that taste I know they are going to love it. Hopefully, it will drive them on to want to keep it at Liverpool for a long time to come."

Perhaps the fortuitous nature of last night's dramatic victory -- three vital points that were rescued, lost and then rescued yet again in a ludicrously overwrought finale -- will serve as a well-timed early kick in the unmentionables for Rodgers and his charges. For if Liverpool are to have the kind of impact that their captain demands, if they are to truly be amongst Les Grandes Équipes, then surely the performance level will have to improve exponentially from last night's Anfield showing. Hold on to your hats, this is likely to be dramatic.

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