Belfast Telegraph

Anfield and Euro drama go hand-in-hand

By Steven Beacom

Brendan Rodgers walked down the Anfield tunnel with the victorious roar of the Kop sweet music to his ears.

From leaving his home village of Carnlough as a kid to try and make it as a professional footballer to managing in the Champions League, it's been some journey for the Ulsterman.

Ever since he began coaching at 20 years of age, when injury halted his playing career, the Northern Ireland-native had dreamt about a night like this.

Happily for him, unlike the departed Luis Suarez who did more than most to earn Rodgers a place at Europe's top table, the reality didn't bite.

Mind you, it did bare its teeth and threaten to ruin Brendan's big evening and Liverpool's return to club football's most prestigious competition after an absence of five long years.

But help was at hand from a familiar figure who once again donned a cape just in time to rescue the Reds.

Some will tell you Steven Gerrard's superhero days are over. Not for a while yet.

His cool as ice penalty on 93 minutes, in a highly dramatic climax, finally saw off the spirited challenge of Bulgarian outfit Ludogorets Razgrad earning Liverpool a vital 2-1 win and three crucial Group B points.

Rodgers clenched his fists when Gerrard calmly found the corner of the net. Relief and joy for the manager having watched his side frustrate for large periods, failing to play with the fluency and cutting edge that made them such a dangerous and dynamic force last season.

Sure, Suarez has gone to Barcelona and the deadly Daniel Sturridge is injured, but even so that should not be used as an excuse for a lot of the laboured build up and lack of penetration that have been features of Liverpool's play in the early part of this campaign.

What is certain is that with Rodgers at the helm Liverpool will improve in the weeks and months to come, especially when the new players begin to feel at home, and winning when nowhere near their best, as was the case last night, will increase confidence.

Following Saturday's shock 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa in the Premier League, it looked as though Liverpool would be shut out again until Mario Balotelli broke the deadlock on 82 minutes with a superbly taken effort.

His poise to control the ball from Alberto Moreno's cross, power to hold off defenders and precision finish delighted the Liverpool fans, so desperate that the controversial Italian proves to be a success.

More goals like that and the £16m spent on Balotelli by Rodgers will quickly become a bargain buy.

While Mario's strike suggested he could be super for the Merseysiders, Dani Abalo's 91st minute equaliser from the slicker than expected visitors, who earlier had hit the post, confirmed that Liverpool's new-look defence is a far from settled unit.

Ludogorets, only formed in 2001, were all set to celebrate a famous result, only for their goalkeeper Milan Borjan to foul Javier Manquillo in the box after failing to clear a risky back pass.

Gerrard stepped up to do the rest giving Rodgers his first Champions League victory as boss.

Next up in Europe at Anfield will be Real Madrid. Expect more drama then.

Belfast Telegraph

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