Liverpool returned to the Champions League in dramatic fashion, with a 2-1 win over Bulgarian champions Ludogorets at Anfield on Tuesday evening.
The Reds huffed and puffed for much of the 90 minutes, against a side clearly determined to put on a good show on their Champions League debut.
Mario Balotelli opened the scoring on 82 minutes with his first goal in front of the Kop, before a last minute equaliser from Spanish substitute Abalo Paulos looked as though it had denied the Reds a winning return.
But a bizarre error from goalkeeper Milan Borjan, gifted Steven Gerrard the chance to win the match from the spot on 90 minutes – which the Reds skipper did with his 40th European goal for the club.
In truth, this was another frustrating performance from Liverpool, who failed to create many clear cut chances despite dominating possession.
Mario Balotelli produced some nice touches and link up play, but wasn’t finding himself in the box as much as he should have been.
The 24-year-old came close to firing his first goal for the club, with a superb turn against the last defender and shot – however a last ditch block denied him.
Adam Lallana then saw his rebound shot saved by Borjan, and Sterling and Balotelli were ruled offside from the rebound.
The most clear cut chance of the first half fell to Lallana once more, after decent link up play between Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson.
The newly appointed vice-captain laid the ball off for Lallana, who couldn’t quite get the ball out of his feet, and saw his scuffed finish cleared off the goal line.
The second half was worryingly reminiscent of the last game at Anfield, with Liverpool trying in vain to break down a stubborn defence.
Mario Balotelli was having no luck in finding space in behind, whilst Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana struggled to find any sort of end product in the final third.
Brendan Rodgers made a change on 67 minutes, introducing Lucas and Fabio Borini for Coutinho and Lallana, and reverting to the diamond formation.
This allowed the game to spring to life, and Borini almost got the opening goal of the night, seeing his header from Javier Manquillo’s cross tipped over the crossbar.
But with a more attacking formation, the Reds left themselves vulnerable to the counter attack twice – and were fortunate to survive.
Roman Bezjak struck the post when through one on one with Simon Mignolet, and it needed a superb last ditch challenge from Alberto Moreno to prevent the Bulgarian’s creating another clear cut opportunity.
Just as it looked as though the Reds return to the Champions League was going to end in frustration, Mario Balotelli produced something out of nothing to fire the opening goal of the night on 82 minutes.
The Italian forward showed superb control to bring down an Alberto Moreno cross, strength to hold off the last defender, and a fine finish into the far corner with the outside of his boot.
Balotelli is not usually one to celebrate his goals, but the fist pump in front of the Kop went some way to explaining how much his first goal in Red meant.
Rodgers reverted to a more flat 4-4-2 in the hope of seeing the game out, but disaster struck on 91 minutes.
Raheem Sterling was dispossessed whilst claiming a free kick, and the Bulgarian’s moved the ball forward quickly.
After just two straight passes, substitute Dani Abalo latched onto a precise through ball from Hamza Younes, and rounded Simon Mignolet who was stranded in no man’s land. He then proceeded to put the ball into the empty net to stun Anfield.
But before anyone really had time to process what had happened, the ball was played back to the Ludogorets goalkeeper Milan Borjan.
The Canadian – on what was his debut for Ludogorets – miscontrolled the ball horribly, and credit to Javier Manquillo who was the man to close him down.
The Spanish full back got the decisive touch to round the keeper, who brought him down. It was then left to Steven Gerrard to cooly slot the penalty into the bottom corner, sending the hapless Borjan the wrong way, and the Kop into delight.
The Reds may have been absent from this competition for five years, but one thing certainly hasn’t changed – they never do things the easy way.
Player ratings: Mignolet 5, Manquillo 7, Lovren 6, Sakho 6, Moreno 7, Henderson 7, Gerrard 6, Coutinho 5 (Lucas 5) Lallana 5, (Borini 5) Sterling 7, Balotelli 7