Liverpool vs Ludogorets: Brendan Rodgers living the dream as Liverpool return to the Champions League
It was the European Cup final. The flashlights were skipping 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 one day and telling myself that, if this were to happen, then I will have 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 who have 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. “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 who 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. A free agent, he was on the point of joining Sarajevo when Ludogorets asked if he fancied a game at Anfield.
The opposition could be grander but Bob Paisley’s journey to his first European Cup final, in 1977, began with a home tie against Crusaders of Belfast. 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, Milan, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. This year they found themselves in pot three. Yesterday, in Anfield’s Room, Rodgers spoke of Liverpool not just competing in the Champions League but of becoming 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 yesterday. Little, simple touches like that let you know where this club has to be. It is very important that we really 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.”
Nobody quite sums up the transformation of Liverpool better than Jordan Henderson. The midfielder was one of three English footballers taken to Anfield by Kenny Dalglish at a cost of around £75m. All were lambasted as examples of the profligacy of the Premier League but, while Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing have gone, Henderson has flourished for both Liverpool and England.
In the wake of Daniel Agger’s return to Denmark, Rodgers named the Wearsider as vice-captain and sees him as Steven Gerrard’s natural successor. “He is someone who represents a lot of what we are about,” said his manager.
“He and Stevie are the moral compass of our group – how they conduct themselves on and off the field, how they train and how they work. The first summer I came here he had the opportunity to leave.
“I did not push him out or ask him to go but, like I do with all the players if another club come in for them, I present them with the opportunity they have. I said: ‘Listen, you have a chance to go to Fulham where you can play every week – or you can stay here. I can’t guarantee you a game straight away but I know one thing; I will improve you as a player’.
“That first period of him being out of the team really helped him tactically because we could work more on video and analyse his game. From that, he has really grown in confidence. I think he will be around for years to come.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital