LONDON, September 15-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.
The five-time champions required a stoppage-time penalty from captain Steven Gerrard to secure victory in Tuesday’s Group B game, after Dani Alabo had cancelled out Mario Balotelli’s 82nd-minute opener for the hosts.
Gerrard’s 93rd-minute spot-kick allowed Liverpool to mark their re-appearance in 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 on 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 (or Rodgers’s 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, Balotelli showcased his predatory instincts to put them ahead, 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 6′ 3” (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.”
– Borjan ‘upset’ –
Gerrard was only able to give Liverpool victory after Ludogorets goalkeeper Milan Borjan made a rash challenge on Javi Manquillo inside the visitors’ penalty area.
The Canada international was making his debut for the Bulgarian champions after they lost Vladislav Stoyanov to suspension and Ivan Cvorovic to injury, and coach Georgi Dermendzhiev admitted he had been devastated by his late blunder.
“The goalkeeper was upset after the mistake. That’s natural,” he told his post-game press conference.
“But we are a team with a very good atmosphere and me and his new team-mates told him it wasn’t a big mistake, everything’s fine, and everything will be fine in the future.”
Ludogorets, who were only founded in 2001, were playing their first competitive game in England and were noisily supported by a small band of supporters who had travelled from the northern Bulgarian city of Razgrad.
“The atmosphere was incredible,” said Dermendzhiev, whose side host reigning champions Real Madrid in their next Group B game.
“It’s a mythical stadium and the fans supported the team throughout the whole match.”
Gerrard, meanwhile, called for Liverpool to raise their game when they visit Basel for their next European assignment on October 1.
“We did OK, but it wasn’t better than OK. There’s a lot to learn,” he said.
“If we win in Basel now it puts us in a good position, but we must do better.”