Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad came close to snatching a point against Liverpool in their Champions League debut but lost 1-2 in dramatic fashion after conceding a late penalty.
Dani Abalo equalised for Ludogorets in the first minute of added time, but Liverpool – back in the Champions League after a five-year absence – secured all three points after captain Steven Gerrard converted the spot kick given for goalkeeper Milan Borjan’s foul against Javi Manquillo a minute later.
Ludogorets started the match well, unfazed by the occasion, and succeeded to frustrate the hosts during an even first half, during which Liverpool had several opportunities to open the scoring, only to be repeatedly denied by Borjan and Ludogorets’ massed ranks in defence.
Canada’s Borjan only signed for Ludogorets last week, on short notice as a replacement for injured keeper Ivan Cvorovic – with first-choice keeper Vladislav Stoyanov suspended for his red card against Steaua Bucharest from the play-off round – and was making his debut at Anfield, showing off his quick reflexes on several occasions during the first half.
By contrast, Liverpool, which lost their last league match against Aston Villa on September 13, once again looked unable to break down a determined opponent despite dominating possession.
In the second half, Ludogorets players ventured outside their half more often, but were mainly restricted to long-shot attempts, recording their first shot on goal only half-way through the half. Still, the Bulgarian champions missed a golden chance to take the lead, when Roman Bezjak’s shot cannoned off the goalpost.
Liverpool continued to press and Italian striker Mario Balotelli, a surprise arrival from Milan in the last week of the summer transfer window, scored his first goal for the Merseyside club, using his strength to overpower two defenders and nudge the ball past the Ludogorets keeper.
The Bulgarian team did not give up, though, and equalised after Junior Caicara dispossessed Raheem Sterling deep in his own half. Younes Hamza fed the ball to fellow substitute Abalo, who rounded Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to score Ludogorets’ first goal in the Champions League.
Just a minute later, any hope for a strong start for Ludogorets were dashed as Gerrard coolly converted the penalty for his 40th goal in European competitions.
In its home debut in the Champions League, Ludogorets will next play reigning European champions Real Madrid on October 1, which demolished Basel 5-1 in their opening match.
(Photo: El Ronzo/flickr.com)