As they stood on the verge of returning to the big European stage, Liverpool were given an untimely reminder of just how far they’d come.
Saturday’s limp, uninspiring 1-0 loss at home to a spirited Aston Villa was reminiscent of so many more anaemic Anfield displays that have happened in the five years since the club last played in a Champions League fixture. Not too many of them have come recently though, and that is why they find themselves here.
Liverpool’s rapid improvement in the past 18 months could have featured a Premier League title success of course, but this has to be seen as the next best thing. The fact that a grand return to the European elite sees them facing a little-known Bulgarian side from a town of just 31,000 people just goes to show that football works in mysterious ways.
The rise of Ludogorets, from Razgrad on the border with Romania, isn’t exactly a unique one within European football. A second tier team as recently as three years ago, they were bought by a sugar daddy and bankrolled all the way to the top.
The only room for romance comes with the astonishing performance of defender Cosmin Moti in this season’s Champions League playoff, when he was required to go in goal for the penalty shootout against Steaua Bucharest. He saved two, scored one and now his team made up of several nationalities are playing at Anfield.
Manager Georgi Dermendzhiev might have considered putting Moti back between the sticks for this one given that he’s without his two most recognised stoppers through suspension and injury. Twenty-three-year-old Georgi Argilashki, the club’s third choice, will make his debut for the club in front of the Kop. We are primed for another romantic story.
Will we get one? Probably not.
Brendan Rodgers will be desperate to see his side’s attacking impetus improve here, so much so that he dare not rest Raheem Sterling again.
Daniel Sturridge is injured and Lazar Markovic suspended, so Mario Balotelli, Adam Lallana and perhaps even Fabio Borini will be seen from the start as the Reds chase goals in their most winnable group game.
They might have to be patient, but those goals should surely come.
Your first port of call here should be the Reds minus a goal at 1.64, but given that the Bulgarians were given a lesson in how to contain Liverpool by Villa on Saturday, under 0.5 goals in the first half also appeals at 4.10.
The Reds should eventually cash in though, and both the 2-0 and 3-0 correct scores appeal at 7.00 and 8.00 respectively.
Everything appears to be set up for this to be the game in which Balotelli breaks his duck for Liverpool, and the 1.85 on him finding the net at any time is certainly worth taking.
The Italian is 5.00 to score at least twice for the Reds, but a better bet could be the special on offer for him to both score a goal and be booked in the match, which is available at 4.50.
If Rodgers is to produce an Italian job and pair him upfront with Borini, then the man who refused to leave Anfield could be worth a punt at 2.30 to score.
Liverpool 2 Ludogorets 0 – 7.00
Liverpool (-1) to win 1.64
Mario Balotelli Anytime Wincast 2.00
Mario Balotelli to both score and be booked 4.50