Liverpool's dramatic return to the Champions League
LIVERPOOL -- Nostalgia is an integral part of Liverpool's identity.
The Kop celebrated a belated return to the Champions League, 1,742 days after their beloved Reds previously competed with the European elite, with a nod to their history. They chorused the name of one of the heroes of their 2005 triumph, Luis Garcia. By the time they exited Anfield, exhilarated by an extraordinary conclusion to an often mundane match, they had a more immediate reminder of another.
Steven Gerrard represents past and present alike. He is a byword for Liverpool and drama in Europe. An injury-time penalty winner against Ludogorets was not as stunning as the 2004 thunderbolt against Olympiakos, to qualify his side from the group stages, or as seismic as his Istanbul display in 2005, among the greatest produced by any player in a Champions League final, but it represented a fitting return to the competition.
The captain is the lone survivor of the team of 2005. Indeed, he was the sole player who featured in Liverpool's previous Champions League game, against Fiorentina almost five years earlier. Gerrard was the constant on a novel occasion for his teammates.
His penalty was the difference between draw and win, securing two points that may prove vital. In the long term, the more significant strike may have come from Mario Balotelli, meeting Alberto Moreno's pass with an impromptu display of juggling and an assured finish. He has a first Liverpool goal. It was one his predecessor in their attack, Luis Suarez, could scarcely have taken with more elan.
The idiosyncratic Italian scarcely conforms to any pattern, but the precedents among Liverpool strikers are instructive. Some, like Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Fernando Torres, have begun well and prospered. Others have endured false starts. Peter Crouch recovered to some extent. Robbie Keane, Fernando Morientes and Iago Aspas did not. Now Balotelli does not belong among their number. His drought lasted only two games.
"He is used to scoring," manager Brendan Rodgers said in his news conference. "He had two games when he hadn't scored. I just feel with him, he needs to be in the box more. I said to him at halftime: 'Make sure when the ball is in wide areas, you are penalty spot and in, not penalty spot and out.'
"He is 6-foot-3 and great in the air. He shows great touch and the finish was wonderful. On top of that, I thought he worked very hard. He is still trying to get fit but he showed us his quality."
Even a fully fit Balotelli would struggle to replicate Suarez's incessant effort. The Uruguayan was a blur of energy, providing a nuisance value even when he was playing badly. He set the tone for the side and Liverpool are struggling to adjust without him to lead from the front. Balotelli is less frenetic but brings other attributes.
Penalty-taking ranks highly among them. Liverpool may now have the three finest exponents in England in Balotelli, Rickie Lambert and Gerrard. The captain remains the first choice from 12 yards and he indicated why with a nerveless conversion after goalkeeper Milan Borjan sent Javier Manquillo flying.
"There's no one better in a pressure situation than Steven Gerrard," Rodgers said. His opposite number, Georgi Dermendzhiev, sympathised with the previously excellent Borjan.
"I am not blaming the goalkeeper," he said. "I am not annoyed or disappointed with him."
One replacement, Ludogorets' Dani Abalo, had scored their last-minute equaliser. Another exerted an impact at the other end. Perhaps tellingly, summer signing Lambert was overlooked when Rodgers sent on Fabio Borini, who had almost joined Sunderland in the transfer window.
It suggests the newcomer has already slipped down the pecking order. Borini justified the reshuffle in the rankings. Liverpool were recalibrated after his arrival and looked the better for it.
"We changed the shape from 4-3-3 to a diamond," Rodgers said. The removal of Philippe Coutinho for Lucas Leiva, never prolific and rarely creative, should serve as an indictment of the younger Brazilian.
And the drama of the final few minutes should not obscure the mediocrity that preceded it. The qualities that propelled Liverpool into the Champions League were absent.
They were razor sharp last season. They made a habit of starting quickly. Instead, for the second time in four days, they allowed the visitors to Anfield to settle into the game.
There were periods when their passing was too ponderous, times when players of the calibre of Adam Lallana and Coutinho conceded possession carelessly. Mamadou Sakho induced jitters time and again and is so uncomfortable on the ball that his colleagues should implement an unofficial rule to never pass to the Frenchman. Others, possessors of great technique, were not incisive or inventive enough.
Balotelli's goal represented a step in the right direction, but the 117 million pound overhaul is yet to bear fruit.
"We are not at the standard we were last season," Rodgers said. "We have a lot of players who have come in and are still adapting. We are a work in progress."
At least, courtesy of Balotelli and Gerrard's goals, they can be more confident of another sort of progress: to the last 16 of the Champions League.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.