Sofia: Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets left Anfield empty handed after losing 2-1 to Liverpool in their Champions League debut on Tuesday but their disappointment was offset by continuing optimism for the future.
"You know what the Liverpool budget is? They`re five-time winners and you saw the crowd but I didn`t see a significant difference (on the field)," said Ludogorets coach Georgi Dermendzhiev.
"And they kept (rested) some of their key players in their previous game, so they could play against us."
Ludogorets lost to a penalty in added time when their Canada stopper Milan Borjan, who only joined the club on Saturday to solve a goalkeeping crisis, failed to clear a backpass, lost the ball and tangled with Javi Manquillo, giving away the spot kick.
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard stepped up to score the winner in a pulsating Group B match in front of The Kop with his 40th European goal as The Reds returned to the Champions League after five-year absence.
It was a desperately harsh outcome for the Bulgarians, who matched the hosts for long periods of the game and could easily have taken the lead when Slovenian striker Roman Bezjak smashed a shot against the post 18 minutes from time.
A more accurate finish from Borjan and Ludogorets would have bucked the trend after a painful history of Champions League defeats for the Balkan country.
Ludogorets are only the second Bulgarian team to compete in the group stage of Europe`s premier club tournament after Levski Sofia, who finished bottom without a point in 2006.
Dermendzhiev said he could not have asked for any more from his unheralded players.
"I feel for the lads but there`s no way back now," he said. "We`re really close, we only needed to hold (on) for a minute or a minute and a half. But I remain confident. I work with a lot of good players who can play at a top European level."
Ludogorets fans hailed their team`s spirited performance at Anfield, their only regret being that Slovenian referee Matej Jug did not send Borjan off for his last-gasp foul on Manquillo.
"If that was the case, Cosmin Moti had to go in goal for the penalty and we all know what happens when he`s acting as a keeper," Ludogorets fan Hristo Boyadzhiev told Reuters. "It would have made our debut even more memorable."
Romania centre back Moti had to go in goal for the penalty shootout in the second leg of Ludogorets` Champions League playoff tie against Steaua Bucharest and saved two spot kicks to help send his side through.
He became such a hero that the club have decided to name a stand after him at their stadium.
Ludogorets, based in the small town of Razgrad, were playing in the domestic third division four years ago but then won two successive promotions and three consecutive league titles.
The Eagles will play their Champions League home matches at the Vasil Levski national stadium in Sofia because their 8,000-capacity Ludogorets Arena is not suitable to host such games.
Ludogorets, who enjoyed a 16-game Europa League campaign in which they reached the last 16 last season, will make their home debut on Oct. 1 when they face holders Real Madrid.