Astonishingly, given how often his immaturity is mentioned, this is Mario Balotelli’s fifth season in the Champions League. Of the Liverpool side that lined up for what proved an unexpectedly thrilling encounter with Ludogorets Razgrad on Tuesday, only Steven Gerrard has more experience of European football’s elite competition.
That is why his intervention for Liverpool’s opening goal in the 2-1 win was so important. As a club Liverpool are steeped in European achievement but many of the players who represent them are Champions League virgins.
If Liverpool are to progress beyond the group stages, Balotelli will be one of manager Brendan Rodgers’ pivotal figures. In Gerrard’s words: “The performance was OK but it wasn’t better than OK. There is lot to learn.”
Balotelli’s breakthrough was a beautiful mix of precision and power, bringing down Alberto Moreno’s cross, muscling between two defenders and clipping the ball home. It was his first goal at Anfield for either Liverpool or Manchester City and it was well worth the wait.
His Champions League record for City and the two Milan clubs is reasonable – a goal every third game – without being exceptional. This was certainly a promising beginning for club No 4.
“It was a brilliant finish with great technique and it was exactly what we needed at the time – that bit of genuine Champions League class,” said Rodgers. “As a coach you will have players who are high maintenance and players who are low maintenance but you can see that he is prepared to work.
“He’s a boy who has really looked into the history of the club. He understands the great strikers of the past. We have spoken about Luis Suarez and his time here but he is still young, still learning the game and still has that hunger to do well.
“You saw his workrate; he has put his body on the line. He needs to do more of that but I think that will come as he gets fitter but he is well in tune with the history, not only of the club, but of Liverpool.”
Rodgers admitted that Liverpool are not yet at the levels they reached after the first month of last season. Before the game, centre-half Dejan Lovren had argued that Liverpool could not afford to sit back and build up ponderously, which had been their undoing in the 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday.
In midfield, Philippe Coutinho appeared to have lost some sparkle and when Liverpool failed to grab the early goal that was a trademark of much of their play at Anfield last season they began to falter.
Ludogorets were supposed to be no kind of opposition and were expected to be brushed aside as effortlessly as Basel were by Real Madrid in Group B’s other game. Had Ludogorets’ centre-forward Roman Bezjak scored rather than hit the post before the flurry of three goals in the final eight minutes, they might have carried off one of the shocks of the Champions League season.
As it was, Liverpool finished with the three points most at Anfield expected them to gain before kick-off but this was a stark reminder that, however stirring their history, Liverpool could not expect to swan back into the Champions League as if the last five years had never been.
First, they have to kick the rust from their boots.
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