Without the departed Luis Suarez and injured Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool returned to the Champions League with a win but face a challenge to recover the free-scoring form that put them back among the European elite.
A last-minute penalty converted by captain Steven Gerrard, after Dani Abalo had levelled for Bulgarian champions Ludogorets, following an exquisite 82nd minute opener by Mario Balotelli, gave Anfield reason to cheer on Tuesday.
Reality, however, soon quelled any fears of uncontrolled optimism as manager Brendan Rodgers and Gerrard both called for improvement if any dreams of the club’s halcyon days in Europe are to be revived.
“We are not yet at the level we were last season, but we will get there,” said Rodgers. “It was a great night in the end because we won. Ludogorets played very well and to get the win was very important.”
“We did OK, but it wasn’t better than OK,” said Gerrard. “There’s a lot to learn…”
The former England captain, who resigned from national service following the national team’s disappointing early exit at the World Cup, had more praise for striker Balotelli, a 16 million pounds ($26.11 million) recruit from AC Milan in August.
“You have to give Mario credit,” said Gerrard. “It didn’t go his way for long periods, but the sign of a good goalscorer is to keep going and get a chance…”
However, Liverpool clearly face a struggle to find their former fluency with the more static, if statuesque, Italian at centre-forward in lieu of the swift incisive scissor-cutting combinations provided by Suarez and Sturridge at their best.
Suarez, who scored 31 Premier League goals, and Sturridge, who netted 21 times, revelled in angled running and sharp-passing interplays, often involving Brazilian playmaker Philippe Coutinho and roaming 19-year-old England winger Raheem Sterling.
Without the Uruguayan’s movement and precision, Liverpool’s attack appeared predictably focused on Balotelli’s dependable but less expansive leadership which made it more difficult for the midfield to find moving targets with their passing.
As The Daily Telegraph’s match report put it: “In Sturridge’s absence, the onus was on Balotelli to provide forward impetus, but the cartographers will not need protective gloves when handling the Italian’s heat map.”
Liverpool, without the goalscorers of last season, are again a work in progress as Rodgers seeks a new design. The cutting edge has gone, but the manager has a bigger, and stronger, squad from which to mould a solid replacement.
It may not dazzle as often, or have the flair of the side that finished second last term, but should prove capable of handling the dual challenge at home and abroad, starting with Saturday’s Premier League trip to West Ham United.