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Brendan Rodgers urges Liverpool to prove they can be real contenders

By Tim Rich

It was the 2008 European Cup final. The flashlights were skipping all around the bowl of the Luzhniki Stadium as Chelsea and Manchester United walked out into the driving Moscow rain. At the back of them was Brendan Rodgers, then part of Avram Grant's coaching staff.

"I was picturing myself as the manager in a Champions League final and what it might be like," he recalled as he prepared to take charge of Liverpool for the first time in the competition.

"I was framing the mindset of that day and telling myself that, if this were to happen, then I've been here before.

"At that time in my mind I was preparing towards being the manager. All the experiences of the games in that period helped because, in my mind, I was looking at the game and making decisions as (if I were) a manager."

Six years later and Rodgers finds himself as the manager of a club that has contested seven European Cup finals and he must back himself to take charge of an eighth.

In his programme notes for Liverpool's first Champions League fixture in five seasons, he wrote: "Our excitement to be playing Champions League football again isn't a 'giddy' excitement.

"We are not tourists in this competition – we believe it is where we belong. We are Liverpool, we are five-times winners of the European Cup and we are synonymous with its best traditions. Our players are excited by the challenges ahead not daunted by them."

Rodgers had just entertained two Liverpool fans in his office.

He knew them because wherever the club have been, so have they.

He said: "They were telling me: 'if you thought the Chelsea atmosphere was good in 2005, wait until we play Real Madrid at home'."

It might have been fitting if their first game back was against Madrid, one of the two clubs that have won more European Cups, but this will not be a grand return.

Ludogorets are based in Razgrad, a town in northern Bulgaria whose population could fit comfortably into Anfield.

By the weekend, they had been reduced to their third-choice keeper and signed the 26-year-old Milan Borjan, who typifies the modern footballer. He was born in Croatia, has kept goal for Canada and played in leagues as disparate as Argentina and Finland.

The opposition could be grander but Bob Paisley's journey to his first European Cup final, in 1977, began with a home tie against Irish League side Crusaders.

It hit home to Rodgers when he looked at the Champions League footballs that had disappeared from Anfield's pitches with Rafa Benitez's dismissal.

Much has changed since then. When the draw was made for the 2009-10 competition, Liverpool were ranked by Uefa above Manchester United, AC Milan, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. This year they found themselves in Pot Three.

Yesterday, in Anfield's Trophy Room, Rodgers spoke of Liverpool not just competing in the Champions League but of being a sustained presence.

"It hits home as soon as you actually see yourself back in the Champions League how much it can actually be missed," he said. "I looked at the footballs. Little touches like that let you know where this club has to be.

"It is important that we enjoy it, embrace everything about it and look to ensure we stay in it. It is difficult to get in and it will be even harder to stay in. I think that's the reality."

Meanwhile, Rodgers believes Mario Balotelli will relish the responsibility of being the side's senior striker.

The Italy international, a £16m signing last month, is now the main man up front in the absence of Daniel Sturridge, likely to be out for another fortnight with a thigh strain.

"The best players enjoy that responsibility and I am sure it is one he is relishing," said Rodgers.

"But on the training field he is going to work hard to accept that responsibility knowing he has been brought here to do a job – to create and score and work hard."

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