Liverpool will have a European final of sorts. To qualify for the business stage of the Champions League they will have to beat Basel at Anfield. If they show the kind of resolve they displayed in a freezing night in Sofia, they should have every chance. If they continue to defend like they did against Ludogorets, they will have none at all.
Here, the flares lit in the open stands at kick-off time had not even begun to fade when Liverpool’s defence caved in yet again this season. Two minutes from what would have been a fine victory, they collapsed once more.
Had Raheem Sterling kept his nerve when through on goal and not aimed his shot against Vladislav Stoyanov’s legs, Ludogorets’ late equaliser would not have mattered. However, the failings that have stalked Liverpool through the season returned. They have been so poor at defending set-pieces that at times conceding a corner has felt like conceding a penalty – which defender Glen Johnson was fortunate not to have done, just before Georgi Terziev headed home from a corner to seal the draw.
It made little real difference to what Liverpool require in their final game, but it was another livid bruise to self-confidence that is as delicate and fragile as Dresden china laid out for a toddler’s birthday party.
It was not the worst result Liverpool have recorded in this stadium. In March 1982, they were knocked out of the quarter-finals of the European Cup by CSKA Sofia. Mark Lawrenson had been sent off in that game and, returning 32 years later, he remarked that the stadium had not changed. It was the same concrete bowl, the same vast floodlight pylons, the same shabby corridors. Liverpool have changed. They may have lost then, but they were European champions, a team where, in the words of Kenny Dalglish, “everybody knew their job”. Glancing at the team that left the pitch last night you wonder how many know theirs.
Under more pressure than at any time during his two years at Liverpool, manager Brendan Rodgers had pledged that here his side would show the resilience and character that some, including the club’s former defender, Jamie Carragher, had thought was almost entirely lacking from their most recent performances.
Mostly they showed it, although Rodgers could not have envisaged just how quickly Liverpool backs were to be pressed against the wall. As the season has soured, the Liverpool manager has talked of a basic lack of confidence in his squad, and nobody seems quite as drained of it as his goalkeeper.
The match was three minutes old when Simon Mignolet’s self-belief would have sunk another couple of notches.
The much-maligned Liverpool goalkeeper was unable to deal with the bounce of a shot from Brazilian Marcelinho on a pitch his manager had chosen not to train on. The ball seemed to ricochet off his chest and Ludogorets’ Spanish forward, Dani Abalo, drove in the rebound.
Mignolet has a political science degree but this was fourth-form goalkeeping. Later in the first half, he was almost deceived again by the bounce of a free-kick delivered by Fabio Espinho.
The home crowd, who had seen their side beat Basel and also push Real Madrid close in Group B, were at the same time delirious and disbelieving.
Ludogorets were, of course, not at home. Their city lies a four-and-a-half hour drive from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and most of the population of 33,000 appeared to have found a way to the country’s national stadium, willing their fairytale to continue.
The fans’ jubilation lasted five minutes, time for Rickie Lambert, the one positive to emerge from Sunday’s debacle at Crystal Palace, to put the game level.
On Tuesday evening, Lambert had delivered a stinging analysis of the way Liverpool had performed at Selhurst Park. Champions League press conferences, staged in front of a firing squad of television cameras and with your manager sitting beside you, seldom encourage observations from footballers other than: “We hope to do well.”
However, Lambert is 32. He grew up dreaming of competing for the European Cup with Liverpool and he knew that, unless there was a dramatic improvement, this would be his one and only opportunity.
Now, with the ball bobbling in the Ludogorets area, he reacted quicker than anyone to head it home via the post. He may not be a natural centre-forward for the kind of teams Rodgers wishes to create, but he is a natural centre-forward.
It provided only a respite in the flow of the game which was mostly towards Mignolet’s goal. In order to shore up a vulnerable defence, Rodgers had recalled Lucas to shield the back four, pushed the Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, further up the pitch (although sometimes you would not have known it) and returned Kolo Touré to the heart of the back four.
Given his heroics in the 1-0 defeat by Real Madrid earlier in the month, it was no more than the Ivorian deserved, although he almost turned Mihail Alexandrov’s low cross past his own goalkeeper.
And then Liverpool broke away to take the lead. Sterling sprinted down the Liverpool left and delivered a low, fast ball with geometric precision that Jordan Henderson, sprinting in, clipped past Stoyanov.
It was precisely the type of goal Liverpool had scored with such regularity last season, a campaign which has often seemed very long ago and very far away.
Ludogorets: Stoyanov, Minev, Moti, Terziev, Caicara, Alexandrov, Espinho, Abalo, Dyakov, Marcelinho, Misidjan.
Liverpool: Mignolet, Manquillo, Skrtel, Toure, Johnson, Lucas, Allen, Henderson, Gerrard, Sterling, Lambert.
Substitutions: Ludogorets Azevedo (Abalo,
69), Wanderson (M Aleksandrov, 72), Younes
(Espinho, 81). Liverpool Moreno (Sterling, 82).
Man of the match Sterling.
Match rating 6/10.
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