Sofia: There was some respite for under-pressure Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers as his side ground out a 2-2 draw away to European minnows Ludogorets in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Liverpool's English midfielder Steven Gerrard (L) fights for the ball with Ludogorets Razgrad's Brazilian midfielder Marcelinho in Sofia. Pic/AFP
The result ended a run of four straight defeats in all competitions for the five-time European champions but left them needing to beat Basel at Anfield in their final Group B match in order to qualify for the last 16 of the continent's elite club football tournament. Liverpool fell behind in the third minute in Sofia but were leading with two minutes to go.
It was anything but plain sailing as Dani Abalo put Ludogorets ahead before Rickie Lambert's equaliser five minutes later, the England striker's first Champions League goal, and another before half-time from Jordan Henderson steadied the visitors' nerves. However, the truly morale-boosting victory Liverpool craved was denied them when Georgi Terziev levelled in the 88th minute.
"To go a goal behind so early on you really need a team that is together and I think the character of the team came out," Rodgers told Sky Sports. "We spoke before the game that this needs to be the night to change our season and for that we needed to show the character in our team," the Northern Irish boss added. "We are disappointed with the goal we conceded in the end but it is irrelevant, we need to beat Basel in the final game. "This is a real confidence boost for us, because Ludogorets are a really difficult team to play against."
Liverpool, runners-up in the Premier League last season, have struggled badly since the departure of star striker Luis Suarez to Barcelona. And their season hit a new low on Sunday as they suffered a 3-1 loss away to Crystal Palace, leaving them closer to the relegation zone than the Champions League places.
Fans of the Merseyside club who had made the journey to Bulgaria must have feared the worst when their side, who needed a stoppage-time penalty from captain Steven Gerrard to beat European newcomers Ludogorets at Anfield in September, fell behind to an early goal. Kolo Toure's poor clearance straight to Marcelino led to a dipping shot which Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet fumbled into the path of Abalo, who swept the ball home. But, to their credit, Liverpool were soon level with a goal that, like the opener, owed much to the failings of the defending side.
As Ludogorets defenders waited for goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov to deal with a Henderson through ball, he stayed on his line and a poor back-header allowed Lambert to nod the loose ball in powerfully from close range. Then Raheem Sterling's curling ball behind the home defence found Henderson, who hooked his shot in from a narrow angle to make it 2-1 in the 37th minute. Ludogorets pressed in the second half and they might have had a penalty in the 61st minute when Liverpool's Glen Johnson fouled Mihail Alexandrov but got away with conceding a free-kick.
Four minutes later Henderson's blushes were spared when he blazed over the top from a few yards out after Lambert's header had been blocked as the referee had already awarded Ludogorets a free-kick. With eight minutes left, Liverpool had a glorious chance to win the game but Sterling, released by Gerrard, shot straight at Stoyanov. But at just 2-1 up, and given Liverpool's problems in defending set-pieces, a Ludogorets equaliser could not be discounted and it duly arrived when the visitors failed to deal with a near-post corner, allowing Terziev to power in a header. However, the draw ended the battling Bulgarians' hopes of a place in the last 16.