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Liverpool Concede Late Ludogorets Equaliser But Still Need Win To Progress

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BRENDAN Rodgers spun on his smart black shoes and roared an expletive at the Liverpool bench as a morale-boosting result, respite and three points vanished in the blink of Georgi Terziev’s 88th-minute equaliser for Ludogorets. A Champions League campaign intended to showcase Liverpool’s return among the European elite has produced only torment and there was more in Sofia, but also hope. Qualification remains in their hands. A manager in Rodgers’ position could not have asked for more.

The Liverpool manager did not get the scrappy win he would have accepted before kick-off due to his team’s latest failure to defend a set piece, Terziev heading home a corner from Júnior Caiçara and sparking a chaotic finale that threatened grave consequences for the visitors. He did, however, get the show of character required with Liverpool coming from behind courtesy of goals from Rickie Lambert and Jordan Henderson, and the chance to reach the last 16 with a victory over Basel at Anfield in two weeks’ time.

Liverpool would have needed to beat the Swiss team, who missed their difficult chance to progress with a home defeat by Real Madrid, had they held on to their lead in the Bulgarian capital. A frustrating draw may have altered the mood but not the equation in Group B. Three points at Anfield and progress is assured, though Liverpool need this performance against Ludogorets to mark a turning point in their trying campaign.

This was a tentative step forward compared with the misery of recent weeks but a step forward nonetheless. Raheem Sterling starred on the left, Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva overcame a difficult start to offer the midfield balance that has been absent of late, Martin Skrtel stood firm in central defence, Javier Manquillo was resolute at right-back and, pushed forward at the age of 34 for 90 minutes, Steven Gerrard’s talents were better deployed.

A first win in five matches would have sweetened the night considerably but the outcome did not trouble Rodgers greatly considering the start Liverpool and their goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, had made against the champions of Bulgaria. So much for the rarified air of the Champions League. The opening exchanges would not have looked out of place in a Sunday league game as both sides traded gifts and showed why they were fighting for survival in Group B.

First up with a calamity was 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 the third minute. The Belgium goalkeeper has endured a torrid campaign and he revealed Liverpool’s lack of confidence with an awful attempt to deal with a long-range shot from Marcelinho.

Ludogorets’ holding midfielder Fabio Espinho instigated their first foray forward with a surging run and crossfield pass that Kolo Touré, once again replacing the £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 en route but the keeper fumbled and Dani Abalo gratefully converted the loose ball from close range.

To a man, Liverpool stared at Mignolet in disbelief. They had started brightly, with 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 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 side’s 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 Allen plus the full-backs, Johnson and Manquillo, retained despite their respective trials at Crystal Palace on Sunday. All four, however, improved to give Liverpool a degree of control as the game wore on.

Liverpool’s defence was creaking badly in the first half with the exception of Skrtel but a rare incisive counterattack 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 was a constant outlet, 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 by Henderson on the home goalkeeper.

Ludogorets rarely tested Mignolet in the closing stages but, after Liverpool survived a handball appeal against Allen, Terziev scored from the resulting corner. Rodgers’ outburst aside, it changed nothing. His team may have lost direction this season but Liverpool have an unerring ability to find their way out of a Champions League hole. – The Guardian

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