Liverpool held after Ludogorets late show
88th minute equaliser means Rodger’s men still must beat Basel to progress
Ludogoret’s Georgi Terziev celebrates his late equaliser against Liverpool in Sofia
A Champions League campaign intended to showcase Liverpool’s return among the European elite has delivered only torment for Brendan Rodgers. There was no escape here in Sofia. A precious first win in five matches beckoned for Liverpool only for Ludogorets to score an 88th-minute equaliser that transformed the mood but not the task confronting Rodgers’ team against Basel in two weeks’ time. Victory at Anfield will send Liverpool through as would have been the case with a win or a draw against the Bulgarian champions.
There were moments after the defender Georgi Terziev headed in a corner from Junior Caiçara when Liverpool were fraying badly and another damaging defeat beckoned for Rodgers who spun on his heels and shouted in despair at Ludogorets’ late leveller. Otherwise, this was a tentative step forward in comparison to the misery of recent weeks. Rodgers got the show of character he wanted if not the scrappy win he would have taken before kick-off and goals from Rickie Lambert and Jordan Henderson almost delivered.
So much for the rarified air of the Champions League. The opening exchanges of this contest would not have looked out of place in a Sunday League game as both sides traded gifts and showed why they are fighting for survival in Group B.
First up with a calamity was Simon Mignolet, the butt of an ancient joke about Dracula and crosses from Bruce Grobbelaar before the game and subject to further ridicule after presenting a ludicrous goal to Ludogorets in only the third minute. The Belgium goalkeeper has endured a torrid campaign but here he betrayed Liverpool’s lack of confidence with an awful attempt to deal with a long-range shot from Marcelinho.
The Ludogorets holding midfielder Fabio Espinho instigated their first foray forward with a surging run and crossfield pass that Kolo Touré, once again replacing £20m Dejan Lovren for a Champions League tie, inadvertently turned into Marcelinho’s path. The shot was straight at Mignolet even after taking a bobble but the keeper fumbled and Dani Abalo gratefully converted from close range.
To a man, Liverpool stared at Mignolet in disbelief. They had started brightly, with Raheem Sterling and Glen Johnson prominent down the left and here they were complicating life for themselves yet again. The visitors’ saving grace was that their opponents self-imploded too. Only five minutes later Lucas Leiva launched a hopeful punt into the Ludogorets penalty area that no one took responsibility for. Lambert missed the first header but was given a second bite when Yordan Minev inexplicably stood back and allowed the ball to bounce up in his six-yard box. Lambert sent a slow, looping header in off the far post for his second goal in two games.
Liverpool then enjoyed comfortable periods of possession without troubling Vladislav Stoyanov in the Bulgarian goal. Ludogorets, by contrast, looked threatening whenever they ventured forward due to the alarming amount of space behind Liverpool’s defensive midfield pair of Lucas and Joe Allen plus the full-backs, Johnson and Javier Manquillo, retained despite their respective trials at Crystal Palace on Sunday.
Bulgaria’s national stadium, named in honour of revolutionary hero Vasil Levski, was the scene of Liverpool’s exit from the 1982 European Cup in a quarter-final against CSKA Sofia. Rodgers had opted for his most experienced midfield to shield the team from a possible repeat. The Liverpool manager heeded calls for Steven Gerrard to be liberated from a play-making role and into a more advanced position but, even with a more defensively minded pairing in front of his defence, Rodgers watched an opponent cut through midfield far too easily.
Gerrard scored here in a Uefa Cup win over Levski Sofia more than 10 years ago and the cheers that greeted his name when the teams were announced before kick-off suggested this would not be the most hostile environment Liverpool had faced on their travels. Ludogorets’ “home” game was 400 miles away from Razgrad due to their stadium failing to meet Uefa standards. Their domestic rivalry with CSKA, who top the table from the reigning champions, meant many of the locals in the stadium were supporting Liverpool. Touré almost sliced a low cross from Mihail Alexandrov into his own net but cut a relieved figure as the ball hit the side-netting with Mignolet stranded. The visiting goalkeeper then came and completely missed a free-kick from Alexandrov and was also reprieved as Abalo headed wide of an empty goal.
Liverpool’s defence was creaking badly with the exception of Martin Skrtel but a rare incisive counter-attack gave Rodgers’ men the foothold they sought. Lambert released Sterling into a three-against-two break, the England winger delivered an inch-perfect cross to the far post and Henderson arrived with perfect timing to send a fine finish beyond Stoyanov.
Sterling was enjoying an excellent game. The 19-year-old has looked exhausted on occasion lately but was a constant outlet in the Bulgarian capital, stretching the Ludogorets’ defence at will despite some rough treatment and making several important interceptions deep inside his own half.
It was Sterling’s left-wing run and cross that gave Lambert an opportunity to extend Liverpool’s advantage but his diving header was blocked on the six-yard line and Henderson skied the loose ball over. His blushes were spared, however, by the referee’s whistle for a push on the home goalkeeper.
Ludogorets barely tested Mignolet in the closing stages but, though Terziev’s header altered the complexion of the night qualification remains in Liverpool’s hands.