MARIO Balotelli has always had a sense of timing and waiting until eight minutes from the end of a delicately poised Champions League tie to score his first Liverpool goal in front of the Kop was almost unimprovable.
Liverpool do not have a monopoly on drama, however, and in the final minute of normal time Ludogorets managed to equalise, only for their new goalkeeper Milan Borjan to spoil what would have been a fairytale result with a clumsy foul on Javier Manquillo in stoppage time to allow Steven Gerrard to settle the matter with a penalty.
Relief, more than anything, was detectable when the dust settled on a frantic last few minutes. The Bulgarian champions had proved capable and clever opponents and Liverpool were making such heavy weather of breaking them down that the visit of Real Madrid next month could only be imagined with dread. Certainly Ludogorets had created chances throughout the game, and maybe better ones than Liverpool until Balotelliâ€™s timely strike, which came just after the visitors had hit the woodwork. It was hard to know what was most unlikely after an ending to the game that seems at odds with what had gone before; three goals being scored in the last 10 minutes or Liverpool scoring two of them.
â€œWe werenâ€™t defensive at all,â€ Ludogorets coach Georgi Dermendzhiev said.
â€œIt was a bitter result after playing so well, but thatâ€™s football, Iâ€™m not mad about it.â€
Brendan Rodgers admitted that Liverpool are â€œnot yet at the standard of last seasonâ€ but predicted Ludogorets would cause other teams problems. â€œThey have some good technical players and they are fast,â€ the Liverpool manager said. â€œWe are still a work in progress but in this tournament you need to win your home games and we did that. Marioâ€™s goal will give him confidence, he worked hard for the team tonight but at half-time I told him to get into the box more. Thatâ€™s where we need him.â€Liverpool started off at such a frantic rate they passed the ball into touch from the kick-off without a Bulgarian player getting near it. Once they calmed down and kept possession they made better progress, and after Balotelli had been fouled twice in the first three minutes the first Bulgarian booking arrived in the fourth, Aleksandar Aleksandrov illegally preventing a Raheem Sterling breakaway down the left.
Alberto Moreno found more freedom down the same flank but wasted a good opening with a poor delivery after sprinting all the way from his own half to the Ludogorets penalty area. While the Kop was in good voice, running through its considerable repertoire of European favourites in celebration of being back at the top table, on the pitch Liverpool initially struggled to rise to the occasion. Balotelli turned Cosmin Moti expertly on the edge of the area only to see Alek Aleksandrov throw himself in the way of his effort, then Adam Lallanaâ€™s follow-up effort was kept out by Milan Borjan, the Canadian goalkeeper making his debut for Ludogorets after signing as a free agent a couple of days earlier.
At least that left Moti free to resume his outfield career, after the penalty shootout saves against Steaua Bucharest that enabled Ludogorets to reach this stage, and the big defender took up where Philippe Senderos left off on Saturday for Aston Villa, by finding space from a free-kick on the half-hour but putting his header too high. As the interval approached Ludogorets had played themselves into the game and their own fans were beginning to make themselves heard.
A tame Balotelli effort was easily saved and Moreno put another over-ambitious shot over the bar as Liverpool began to take pot-shots from distance rather than pass through their opponents. Balotelli was too isolated up front and Sterling and Philippe Coutinho were too little involved in the game. When that pair finally combined excitingly on the left shortly before the break it led to a cross from which Lallana seemed certain to score, yet Svetoslav Dyakov popped up with a clearance off the line and Borjan and his defenders breathed again.
Liverpool opened the second half with shots from Coutinho and Jordan Henderson, again from distance and comfortably dealt with, before Balotelli called for and received a cross from the left only to be let down by a poor first touch. At least Liverpool were creating chances, though Manquillo was guilty of missing one of the clearest when Henderson picked him out with a lofted pass behind the Bulgarian defence, trying to dink the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper but putting it over the crossbar as well. That was the first real goalscoring opportunity missed, and within seconds Ludogoretsâ€™ impressive wing-back Junior Caicara brought the first full stretch save of the evening from Simon Mignolet. The Liverpool goalkeeper could only parry a stinging drive from the angle of the area and must have been relieved that Ludogorets had no one in the middle to profit.
As the game entered its final half-hour Liverpool were piling on the pressure, yet the visiting back four was a solid barrier. Ludogoretsâ€™ own liveliness and alertness was amply demonstrated when Dejan Lovren was caught out twice in quick succession on the right touchline, first idling on the ball and conceding a throw-in, then failing to recover quickly enough to prevent Roman Bezjak getting a shot on goal from a quick throw.
With the game surprisingly end to end, Fabio Borini, on as a substitute, thought he had made the breakthrough with a firm header from Manquilloâ€™s superbly flighted cross, yet Borjan was equal to the situation with a spectacular one-handed save. Not to be outdone, Ludogorets went straight to the other end where Bezjak struck a post, with Yordan Minev missing the target with a free shot at goal from the rebound.
Liverpool were hanging on a little by the time Balotelli intervened, controlling a cross from the left and getting in front of the excellent Moti for perhaps the first time in the match to beat Borjan from six yards. That should have been that, yet an exquisite pass from Younes Hamza sent his fellow substitute Dani Abalo clear to equalise. While a draw would have been fair, Liverpool kept going and were rewarded by Borjanâ€™s naivety. Moti must have been furious. – The Guardian