Welcoming Ludogorets Razgrad to Anfield is not quite the romantic renaissance with the Champions League Liverpool may have wanted, but after five barren years the Kop won’t care.
In many ways the Bulgarians are an acute marker of the length of time, at least in a football sense, England’s most successful club in Europe have spent outside the continent’s biggest competition.
When Liverpool last graced the Champions League, Ludogorets were an amateur side playing in the third tier of Bulgarian football. The investment of pharmaceutical millionaire Kiril Domuschiev though has now put them as equals to the five-time winners.
And while a modest club in the north east of Bulgaria have made a rapid ascent to Europe’s top table, Liverpool, in reassuming their own position among the continental elite, have survived near financial ruin, seen four different managers occupy the dugout and endured a succession of forgettable league finishes before last season’s surprise title challenge which secured them second place and automatic qualification.
It has been quite the ride. But now Brendan Rodgers’ side are in the Champions League – with Liverpool a club who look up and see AC Milan and Real Madrid as the only two who have lifted ‘Old Big Ears’ more times than them – the key is staying there.
Last season’s title charge was ultimately halted by a threadbare squad running out of steam at the crucial moment when their rivals utilised the very strength Liverpool lacked. Consequently Rodgers not only needed to concentrate this summer on replacing Luis Suarez but also bolstering his squad with enough talent to ensure he has two strong players in each position.
With Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno, Javier Manquillo, Emre Can and Lazar Markovic that was achieved. That investment will now be put to the test as the workload rises, and the quality will not be allowed to drop.
Until Saturday’s surprise 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa, the loss of Suarez hadn’t really been felt. Daniel Sturridge helped see to that last season when the Uruguayan was still a Liverpool player and suspended, while Raheem Sterling’s early-season form compensated for his sale to Barcelona. But against Villa, without Sturridge and a fatigued Sterling on the bench, Liverpool’s summer reinforcements were desperately disappointing.
A team who scored four goals or more at home last term on nine occasions suddenly looked devoid of ideas in attack mustering just one shot on target, as Lallana, Markovic and Balotelli all underwhelmed.
That same attacking unit, plus a restored Sterling, will line up tonight and can’t really afford to be so profligate.
Liverpool have largely been blessed, not only in their draw for Group B – Real Madrid, Ludogorets and Basel – but also in the fixtures that follow each tie: West Ham (a), West Brom (h), Hull (h), Chelsea (h), Stoke (h) and Manchester United (a). It should be enough for them to manage European duties and not lose touch with the top four before the knockout phase, assuming they qualify.
But with expectations dramatically increased, for Rodgers this isn’t just about bringing back the glory nights to Anfield, it’s ensuring the Kop doesn’t have to wait another five years to experience them again.
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