Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers says “persistence” paid off for his side in the 2-1 win over Ludogorets Razgrads on their return to the Uefa Champions League, but concedes they are yet to peak this season.
The ‘Reds’ held their nerves to edge a closing minute high drama as substitute Dani Abalo silenced the Anfield faithful with a 90th minute leveler, canceling out Mario Balotelli’s opener eight minutes earlier.
The hosts piled up further in the attack and were rewarded by Milan Borjan’s let-off; as the goalkeeper tripped Javier Manquillo who was chasing down a loose ball. Steven Gerrard stepped up to convert the resultant spot-kick as Liverpool got off to an “all important” winning start.
“Tonight was about perseverance, if I was to describe the team,” said the northern Irish boss. “It’s an attribute you need to have, especially at the highest level. We just persisted – we kept going, working and pushing. The whole ground really appreciated that.
“It’s a competition that is about winning games and sometimes you’ll play well and maybe not get a result. It was always going to be a tricky tie for us because they’re the champions of their country and there are not too many bad teams in this competition.
“Maybe in [my] first six months we probably would have drawn that game and maybe even lost it, but we showed the resilience and character that’s in this group. Roared on by the supporters, it was great for us.
“It was a brilliant victory for us in terms of the points and character. This is a tournament that’s about winning games – and we’ve won our first game.”
After five years in the wilderness, the Group B opener against the Bulgarian champions, who were only making their first appearance in Europe’s elite club competition, was expected to have posed the least challenge for the Merseyside outfit.
However, the visitors were confident in possession and fluid in turning defence into attack, incidentally stretching Liverpool’s defence almost to yielding point.
“They’ll be a difficult opponent,” Rodgers explained. “You saw from tonight they will cause problems for teams. They have got some very good technical players on the break, they are fast.
“We can do no more than win tonight. We’re not at a standard that we were last season; we’ve got a lot of adaptation going on with new players coming in, and even though they fit the profile of how we work, it’s still a new team.
“We’re still a work in progress but while we do that, it’s important that we can win games. To win in the Champions League is always good.”
Balotelli’s strike was his first in three matches, since arriving from AC Milan for £16m this summer, and Rodgers believes the Italian can build on his over-all contribution on Tuesday night by getting more goals.
Rodgers added: “He’s used to scoring. He’d already mentioned he’d had two games and hadn’t scored.
“I just feel he needs to be in the box more. Because of his link-up play, he drops in. I said to him at half-time, just make sure when the ball is in wide areas you’re penalty spot in, rather than penalty spot out – he finds himself pulling back outside the box for the cut-back a lot of the time.
“On top of that I thought he worked very hard tonight – he worked and was pressing. He’s still adapting and still trying to get fit because he’s been behind the others in pre-season.
“He showed his quality tonight and that got us the goal.”