LIVERPOOL (AFP) – Steven Gerrard scored a 93rd-minute penalty as Liverpool scraped past competition debutants Ludogorets Razgrad 2-1 on their return to the Champions League after a five-year absence on Tuesday.
After labouring to break the Bulgarian champions down, Liverpool took an 82nd-minute lead through Mario Balotelli, only for visiting substitute Dani Abalo to equalise in the first minute of stoppage time.
But with Ludogorets on the brink of a memorable shock result, their goalkeeper Milan Borjan – who only joined the club on Sunday – felled Javi Manquillo and Gerrard gave the hosts victory from the spot.
“To get the result was excellent. They showed great character to keep going,” said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, whose side visit Basel in their next Group B fixture.
It was a cruel finale for Georgi Dermendzhiev’s Ludogorets, who must now rouse themselves for the challenge of hosting defending champions Real Madrid in their next fixture on October 1.
But Dermendzhiev refused to criticise Borjan, saying: “I’m not blaming the goalkeeper. I’m not annoyed or disappointed with him. This is how things are. It was a split-second decision, so there’s nothing to blame him for.”
Liverpool’s starting XI featured five players who were sampling the Champions League for the first time, including Raheem Sterling, who had started Saturday’s 1-0 loss at home to Aston Villa on the bench.
Ludogorets, meanwhile, gave a debut to Canadian goalkeeper Borjan, who was only signed by the club after they lost Vladislav Stoyanov to suspension and Ivan Cvorovic to injury.
Although Liverpool quickly assumed control at an expectant Anfield, they did not test Borjan until the 21st minute.
Balotelli had a shot blocked by Aleksandar Aleksandrov following a neat turn and Adam Lallana’s follow-up obliged Borjan to make a two-handed parry. The visitors did not seem daunted by the occasion and after Marcelinho had seen a penalty appeal turned away, Cosmin Moti – the Romanian defender who saved two penalties in Ludogorets’ shootout win over Steaua Bucharest in the play-off round – headed over.
Liverpool finished the first half strongly, but Lallana dithered when presented with a sight of goal by new vice-captain Jordan Henderson, allowing a defender to block, and Dejan Lovren headed over from a corner.
Success continued to elude the home side early in the second period, with Henderson picking out Manquillo, only for the Spanish right-back to lift the ball into the Kop.
Roman Bezjak gave Liverpool a scare by toeing a shot over after the hosts switched off at a throw-in and Rodgers reacted by introducing Lucas Leiva and Fabio Borini for Lallana and the wasteful Philippe Coutinho.