It was almost just like the old days as Steven Gerrard scored an added-time winner to get Liverpool’s Champions League return off to a winning start.
The Reds captain, so influential on European nights of the past, stroked home a very late spot-kick to give his team a 2-1 win over spirited Ludogorets.
It usually takes something special to upstage Mario Balotelli, who scored the first goal for the club since his £16million summer transfer from AC Milan, but the Bulgarian minnows almost achieved it when substitute Dani Abalo rolled in a 90th-minute equaliser.
However, when Javier Manquillo was brought down by goalkeeper Milan Borjan, only signed at the weekend because of suspension and injury to Ludogorets’ first two choices, Gerrard assumed the role for which he has become synonymous.
The five-time winners of Europe’s elite club competition had waited five years to be back in the big time but it seemed the fanfare which greeted its arrival at Anfield would be silenced by the visitors.
It seemed, with impeccable timing, Balotelli had chosen the perfect moment to open his account eight minutes from time but there was greater drama to follow.
And while it was not the most convincing of wins it got the Reds off and running, particularly important considering Real Madrid’s comfortable win over Basle in the other game in Group B.
Liverpool’s Champions League absence extended to 1,742 days and they discovered much had changed in the interim, with Gerrard the only survivor from the last squad to play in the competition.
With nine players making their European debuts for the club – only Gerrard and Raheem Sterling, replacing the suspended Lazar Markovic, having played in continental competition before – the lack of cohesion was understandable.
It takes time to build success in the Champions League, even against Bulgarian outsiders, and of the nine ‘newbies’ Simon Mignolet, Jordan Henderson, Alberto Moreno, Adam Lallana and Sterling were all making their bow in this competition.
That inexperience led to naivety, with lots of niggling fouls conceded as players failed to adjust to a European way of refereeing, although Slovakian official Matej Jug did seem particularly pedantic.
Moreno, a Europa League winner with Sevilla last season, provided Liverpool’s best outlet in the first half with a number of trademark charges down the left flank but he struggled to deliver the killer cross on a number of occasions and blazed another goal attempt well over.
Balotelli produced a slick turn to beat Cosmin Moti but his shot blocked by Aleksandar Aleksandrov and Lallana’s follow-up rebounded off goalkeeper Milan Borjan – only signed at the weekend after suspension and injury ruled out Ludogorets’ first and second choices – to Balotelli, who was offside.
The best move of the half saw Philippe Coutinho, Sterling and Henderson combine to tee up Lallana but his goalbound strike was blocked by Svetoslav Dyakov and Dejan Lovren headed over the resulting corner.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers predicted Ludogorets, Bulgarian champions for the last three seasons, would play an open style and he was proved right with the visitors comfortable in possession and quick to get forward – but their lack of genuine quality in the final third meant they did not trouble goalkeeper Mignolet.
Rodgers’ pre-match comments also stressed the need for patience if their familiar fast start did not pay dividends – but it was a virtue in short supply with the home fans expecting to see the Champions League debutants despatched with some ease.
Attacking The Kop in the second half the tempo quickened with Manquillo volleying over before Junior Caicara almost surprised Mignolet with a low, long-range effort which the goalkeeper batted away.
Balotelli hooked Manquillo’s cross into the bank of expectant supporters behind the goal but Roman Bezjak almost capitalised on a sleeping Gerrard at a quickly-taken throw-in to blaze over, although his next effort almost silenced Anfield with a shot which beat Mignolet but rebounded off the far post.
Liverpool’s chances were not as close with substitute Fabio Borini’s header tipped over by Borjan and Henderson nodding wide.
When the ball was fed in to Balotelli he squeezed between two defenders, turned and poked home from close range only for Abalo to get in behind Lovren, round Mignolet and slide home.
But if any club know the value of not giving up in the Champions League it is Liverpool and when Manquillo was brought down by Borjan after he miscontrolled a backpass the stage was set for Gerrard – and he duly delivered.