Liverpool lucky to win
(Mario Balotelli 82, Steven Gerrard 90+3 pen)
(Dani Abalo 90+1)
Liverpool's lucky win on their Champions League return invites lazy cliches.
They played poorly and prevailed. Better teams than the Reds will struggle against Ludogorets. Three points are the primary concern.
Simple cliches can be a warm security blanket, but cliches can't save Brendan Rodgers on this one. He dipped his first toe in European waters and almost had it ripped off by toothless minnows.
That he emerged from his Champions League debut with his dignity intact - owed more to a catastrophic error from Ludogorets goalkeeper Milan Borjan in stoppage time than it did to anyone in a Liverpool jersey.
Rodgers and skipper Steven Gerrard both sang from the same hymn sheet after the game, emphasising the need to get better quickly, but it's difficult to see how.
Ludogorets further pulled back the surgical sheet that Aston Villa tugged at last weekend and revealed Liverpool's gaping wound.
A brittle spine could eventually break the Reds. It handicaps their movement and restricts their creativity.
Their soft centre will melt Liverpool hearts, but not in a romantic way.
Their last campaign marked a true romance. This one threatens to be remembered as a tepid regression.
Rodgers' scattergun approach in the transfer window was exposed against Ludogorets, the Bulgarian side revealing how lopsided Liverpool really are.
Simon Mignolet, Dejan Lovren, Mamadou Sakho and Gerrard all toiled to deal with Marcelinho and substitute goal-scorer Dani Abalo as they sliced through a central defence that lacked strength, cohesion and communication.
Rodgers lavished funds in the final third of the field to replace the irreplaceable Luis Suarez, but didn't address the singular reason for the club falling desperately short in their title bid - their gaping holes at the back.
The Reds' inherent weaknesses seem almost systemic.
Mignolet's questionable decision-making and judgment calls in the penalty box have already hinted at the need for a second goalkeeper who was never signed.
Not for the first time, he had a culpable role in conceding a dreadful goal.
Lovren is more dependable and requires time to work on communication with his new teammates, but he must secretly crave a new partner.
Sakho's lapses in concentration render him a liability. One led to Ludogorets hitting the post and only a terrific intervention from Alberto Moreno stopped the visitors profiting from another Sakho blunder.
He was nutmugged twice.
Nutmegs are usually tolerated only on the training ground; a harmless by-product of early-morning banter and players mugging for cameras.
Being nutmugged by the boys from Bulgaria in a Champions League opener is less appreciated.
But Liverpool's soft centre, the systemic failing that prevents this side from getting close to replicating their swashbuckling cheekiness from last season, rests with their skipper.
Gerrard's first-pump when he put away the winning penalty in stoppage time was not an exclamation of unadulterated joy, but a sigh of relief.
Fortune had favoured the brave, if not the brilliant.
Pre-match build-up inevitably focused on Gerrard's greatest European moments and that night in Istanbul, but that player is now wading through the quicksands of time.
Yesterday morning, Liverpool often plodded going forward and left space at the back. It's no coincidence that Jordan Henderson grew into the game and might have snatched Man-of-the-Match honours.
He played the solitary linkman, labouring in vain to bring Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho into proceedings.
Lallana got lost. Coutinho has lost his confidence.
Henderson could only cover so much ground. He's working harder to mind the gaps and escape that shadow.
Playing alongside an indomitable club legend enhanced Henderson's game last season. It must have been a privilege. Now it's beginning to look like a penance.
Rodgers had already made it clear that Mario Balotelli's remarkable record from the penalty box plays second fiddle to his skipper's stature at the club.
Gerrard takes the penalties. Gerrard calls the shots. He's untouchable at Anfield.
If that also makes him undroppable, Rodgers faces an uncomfortable dilemma when Real Madrid and company step down from the top table to visit.
Real's merciless muscle men could pummel that fragile backbone after
Rodgers failed to carry out the required surgery in pre-season.
Liverpool spent a club record £130 million ($268m) and still didn't fix their brittle spine.
- LIVERPOOL: Simon Mignolet, Javi Manquillo, Dejan Lovren, Mamadou Sakho, Alberto Moreno, Steven Gerrard, Adam Lallana (Fabio Borini 67), Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho (Lucas Leiva 68), Raheem Sterling, Mario Balotelli
- LUDOGORETS: Milan Borjan, Mihail Aleksandrov, Roman Bezjak (Younes Hamza 86), Anicet Abel, Aleksandar Aleksandrov, Svetoslav Dyakov (Fabio Espinho 85), Yordan Minev, Cosmin Moti, Junior Caicara, Marcelinho, Virgil Misidjan (Dani Abalo 72)
Rodgers heartened by Pool resilience
WHY ALWAYS ME: Mario Balotelli (right) scoring Liverpool’s first goal after collecting a left-wing cross from Alberto Moreno. PHOTO: JASON CAIRNDUFF/ACTION IMAGES
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers drew encouragement from his side's perseverance after they eked out a 2-1 win over Bulgarian newcomers Ludogorets Razgrad on their return to the Champions League.
Gerrard's 93rd-minute spot-kick allowed Liverpool to mark their return to the competition after a five-year absence with victory, and despite their attacking shortcomings, Rodgers was heartened by their grit.
"It's a competition that's about winning, and winning games," said Rodgers, who had seen his side lose 1-0 at home to Aston Villa last Saturday.
"Sometimes, you'll play well and not get a result. For us, it was very important to be back in the competition.
"Maybe in the first six months (of Rodgers' tenure), we would have probably drawn that game or maybe even lost it.
"But we showed the resilience and character that's in this group, and roared on by our supporters, it was great for us."
He added: "We're not at the standard we were last season. We have a lot of players who have come in and are still adapting.
"It's still a new team and we're still a work in progress, but it's important to win the games."
With Liverpool toiling in attack, Mario Balotelli showcased his predatory instincts to score his first goal for the club, holding off a pair of defenders to gather Alberto Moreno's left-wing cross and then guiding a shot inside the right-hand post.
But, while Rodgers hailed his sang-froid, he urged the Italy striker to spend more time in the penalty area.
"He needs to be in the box more. Because of his link-up play, he drops in," Rodgers said.
"I said to him at half-time, just make sure that when the ball's in wide areas, you're penalty-spot in, rather than penalty-spot out, because he finds himself pulling back for the cut-back.
"He's 1.90 metres and he's great in the air, and when the cross then comes in, he showed great physical strength, touch, and then a brilliant finish - wonderful technique, outside of the foot.
"It'll give him a whole load of confidence. On top of that, he worked very hard. He's still adapting, still trying to get fit because he's behind the others. But he showed his quality and that got us the goal."
Ludogorets, who were founded only in 2001, were playing their first competitive game in England and were supported by a small, no band of supporters who had travelled from the northern Bulgarian city of Razgrad.
Liverpool's next Champions League game is on Oct 1 when they visit Basel. - Wire Services.