CL 2014: Steven Gerrard lights up Anfield with last-gasp Liverpool winner
After five years away, Champions League drama returned to Anfield like a long lost friend on Tuesday as Liverpool beat debutants Ludogorets of Bulgaria 2-1 with Steven Gerrard scoring a last-gasp penalty.
London: After five years away, Champions League drama returned to Anfield like a long lost friend on Tuesday as Liverpool beat debutants Ludogorets of Bulgaria 2-1 with Steven Gerrard scoring a last-gasp penalty.
All three goals came towards the end of a pulsating Group B game and, fittingly, it was Liverpool skipper Gerrard, the last remaining hero of their famous 2005 Champions League final victory over AC Milan in Istanbul, who scored the winner.
The midfielder fired home his 40th European goal in the last minute of stoppage time.
But this was no classic to rank alongside that win or other victories at Anfield over the likes of Olympiakos or Chelsea before they took a leave of absence from the competition in 2009.
This was a hard-fought victory after an achingly frustrating night with the Anfield faithful having to endure typical nail-biting tension before going home happy.
Italy striker Mario Balotelli, with his first goal for the club since his move from AC Milan, broke Ludogorets` resistance after 82 minutes, only for Liverpool to self-implode on the stroke of full-time when Dani Abalo took advantage of poor play by Simon Mignolet to round the keeper and equalise for the visitors.
With a draw looking inevitable, Canadian international keeper Milan Borjan, who only joined Ludogorets last week to solve a goalkeeping crisis, then made a terrible mistake at the other end, failing to clear a backpass, losing the ball, tangling with Javi Manquillo and giving away a penalty.
Gerrard, so deadly from the spot, made no mistake to score the winner seconds before the final whistle blew.
But Gerrard, and his manager Brendan Rodgers were not blind to how close Liverpool came to ending the night without a win.
"We did OK but it wasn`t better than OK. There`s a lot to learn, we were caused problems on the counter-attack, Gerrard said.
"You have to give Mario Balotelli credit, it didn`t go his way for long periods but the sign of a good goalscorer is to keep going and get a chance. What`s more important is his work rate.
"If we win in Basel now it puts us in a good position but we must do better."
Manager Rodgers, in his first Champions League match in charge, said: "It was a great night in the end because we won, but we are not yet at the level we were last season but we will get there.
"Ludogorets played very well, they are a very good side and to get the win tonight was very important."
Ludogorets coach Georgi Dermendzhiev said other teams would have a different view of his team after this match.
"I’m very pleased with my players. They’re brave and they didn’t allow Liverpool to create many chances," he said.
"They’ll start looking at Ludogorets in a different way in Europe now. I’m confident and I’m sure we’re strong enough to finish third and continue in the Europa League."
Ludogorets went closest to a goal before the late flurry started when Roman Bezjak hit a post after 72 minutes and although they deserved a point from an enterprising performance, they will be encouraged ahead of upcoming fixtures against Basel and champions Real Madrid.
It promised to be a memorable night for five-times former European champions Liverpool, but they never really got into their stride and after Ludogorets overcame a cautious start the game was wide open.
The Bulgarians began to stretch Liverpool at the back with Brazilian midfielder Marcelinho a constant menace with his swift breaks.
He was unlucky not to be awarded a penalty in the first half when Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren shoved him over, and he also went close to a goal himself in the second half.
Liverpool`s midfield never took control either and their only real chance in the first half fell to Adam Lallana who failed to capitalise after some rare good work from Raheem Sterling.
But just as the game appeared to be petering out to a goalless draw, Balotelli struck when he got a difficult ball under control and scored with his right foot.
"It was world class," said Rodgers somewhat excessively.