LIVERPOOL, England >> Steven Gerrard came to Liverpool’s rescue once again in the Champions League, converting an injury-time penalty for a 2-1 victory over Ludogorets Razgrad on Tuesday in the English team’s first game back among Europe’s elite in five years.
Gerrard, the only player remaining from Liverpool’s last Champions League match in December 2009, capped a frantic final 10 minutes at Anfield by scoring his 40th European goal after Ludogorets’ debutant goalkeeper Milan Borjan brought down Javier Manquillo.
Dani Abalo’s goal in the opening seconds of injury time cancelled out Mario Balotelli’s 82nd-minute strike — his first for Liverpool — and looked like earning a Group B draw for Ludogorets, the unheralded Bulgarians making their debuts in the competition’s group stage.
Gerrard has long been Liverpool’s man for the big occasion, though, finding the net at the same Kop end he scored that memorable late goal against Olympiakos in December 2004 that set the team on its way to a fifth European Cup that season.
“We did OK but it wasn’t better than OK,” the 34-year-old Gerrard. “There’s a lot to learn.”
It was Liverpool’s long-awaited return to what the club and its fans regard as their habitat and a sea of flags and scarves decorated all corners of Anfield before kickoff, with a mosaic of five European Cups held up by Kop. They have missed these big European nights in these parts during the team’s fallow period.
But this arguably was an even bigger night for Ludogorets, a team that didn’t even exist at the turn of the century and only turned professional in 2010. The Bulgarian champions did not look overawed on the biggest night of their lives, famously made possible by defender Cosmin Moti’s penalty saves in a shootout win against Steaua Bucharest in the qualifying playoff when filling in as goalkeeper.
And they could easily have drawn or even won the game, with Roman Bezjak rolling a shot against the foot of the post when clean through with the score at 0-0.
In the end, it was a reckless challenge by Borjan — a Canadian signed on Friday to solve a goalkeeping crisis — that cost Ludogorets a point.
“He was upset, that’s natural,” Ludogorets coach Georgi Dermendzhiev said of Borjan, “… but we told him after the game it is not a big mistake, everything will be fine in the future.”
Balotelli had been a peripheral figure, dropping too deep in search of action and leaving Liverpool without a presence up front, until he made a goal out of nothing.
The Italy striker controlled Alberto Moreno’s cross from the left, beat Moti with a touch and poked a fine finish into the corner for his first goal since joining from AC Milan last month.
“I think that will give him a whole lot of confidence,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said.
Liverpool had been limited to half-chances in a scrappy before that, showing that the step-up to the Champions League — even against the possibly weakest team in the competition — will not be easy. Real Madrid beat Basel 5-1 in the group’s other game.
“Tonight was about perseverance, an attribute you need to have,” Rodgers said. “We kept going.”