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Liverpool vs. Ludogorets, 2014 UEFA Champions League: Final score 2-1 thanks to a late penalty from Steven Gerrard

Mario Balotelli opened his Liverpool account, but the visitors came back to equalize, looking certain to leave with a draw. That is, until Steven Gerrard converted a late penalty to save the Reds certain blushes.

Clive Brunskill

Liverpool have returned to the Champions League after five long years away, but their first match didn't go quite as they had planned. In the end, however, the Reds managed a narrow win over Ludogorets to get their campaign off to a decent start.

It's likely the Liverpool fans that packed Anfield, welcoming the return of Champions League football, were expecting to see their team coast to victory over Bulgarian side Ludogorets. By the end of the first half, those supporters were sorely disappointed.

While Liverpool certainly had the majority of the chances in the first half, the visitors were up to the challenge, defending well and ensuring most shots came from a distance. But Ludogorets also benefited from their newly signed keeper, Milan Borjan. The Canadian international was signed just days ago, covering for suspension and injury to the side's other keepers. Borjan did especially well around the 22nd minute, when he blocked a shot from Mario Balotelli, only to turn around and save Adam Lallana's attempt on the rebound.

Cosmin Moti must have retained some of the magic that had him in goal saving penalties to put Ludogorets through to the group stage, because the defender was instrumental in keeping Liverpool at bay. Could Brendan Rodgers have been wondering if he should have paid only a few million for Moti, rather than spending so much on Dejan Lovren? The Croatian failed to impress once more.

With just over 20 minutes left to play, Rodgers attempted to change things up. Off came Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, on came Lucas and Fabio Borini. Almost immediately, Borini forced another great save from Borjan. But with Liverpool stretched, Ludogorets were able to get in behind -- and nearly scored. Roman Bezjak hit the post, but Yordan Minev went wide with his followup.

But in the end, the result was as expected. With less than ten minutes left to play, Balotelli worked his way inside the area to get on the end of a cross from Alberto Moreno. Holding off two Ludogorets defenders, the forward poked the ball into the bottom corner to open his Liverpool account. And what a way to do it.

Unfortunately for Mario, his heroic moment was cut short in added time. Ludogorets once again managed to get in behind the Liverpool defense, and this time they made it count. Dani Abalo, on for Virgil Misidjan, got on the end of a through-ball from fellow subsitute Hamza Younes to put in the equalizer.

The stage was set for Ludogorets to receive a hero's welcome upon their return to Bulgaria. Instead, they managed to mess things up in the worst possible way. The defense was unable to stop Javi Manquillo, forcing Borjan to try and remedy the situation. Instead he conceded a last-minute penalty. Of course it was Steven Gerrard who stepped up. The Liverpool captain put his penalty low, Borjan went the wrong way, and Liverpool were spared the agony of failing to win at Anfield.

Liverpool starting XI (4-2-3-1): Simon Mignolet; Javi Manquillo, Dejan Lovren, Mamadou Sakho, Alberto Moreno; Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard; Philippe Coutinho (Lucas 68), Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana (Fabio Borini 69); Mario Balotelli

Goals: Balotelli 82', Gerrard 90+3'

Ludogorets starting XI (4-2-3-1): Milan Borjan; Yordan Minev, Aleksandar Aleksandrov, Cosmin Moti, Junior Caicara; Anicet Abel, Svetoslav Dyakov (Fábio Espinho 85); Virgil Misidjan (Dani Abalo 73), Marcelinho, Mihail Aleksandrov; Roman Bezjak (Hamza Younes 86)

Goals: Abalo 90+1'