Liverpool start the journey in rebuilding a faltering season by travelling to Bulgaria to save their hopes of progressing to the knock-out stages of this season’s Champions League. Ludogorets wait on Wednesday night with both teams knowing that a win is the only option to boost their chances of qualifying from Group B. In general circumstances, the Reds would go into a clash like this as overwhelming favourites, with Ludogorets being seen as the minnows of the group. However, with Liverpool’s awful current form, you could argue that Ludogorets, being at home, would see themselves as odds on to secure a victory. Either way, it is all to play for and both teams will be fighting for their lives to stay in Europe’s elite competition.
Brendan Rodgers and his men go into the match having lost their last four matches in all competitions after their 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on Sunday. This is a far cry to the form they should during the end of last season but nothing has clicked thus far. The team seems to have very little confidence and the fluidity of their play has diminished incredibly over the last month or two. Combined with a very poor defensive unit, their recent results have left the team languishing in 12th in the league and hanging by a thread in Europe, a situation which wouldn’t have been far off the worst case scenario when planning for this season. A win here will be absolutely crucial for Liverpool and may their demeanour going into league and cup games as well as in the Champions League.
Ludogorets became the first Bulgarian team to gain a win in the Champions League in its current form on Matchday 3 and although they came into the group as potential whipping boys, they have held their own and are still in contention of qualifying. After narrow defeats against Liverpool and Real Madrid in their first two games, they were victorious in their home match against Basel before losing the return match 4-0. Their home form has been fantastic this season and are unbeaten in 12 of their 13 matches on their own turf, with the Madrid defeat being the outlier. Ludogorets will actually be confident that they can pounce on a wounded animal in Liverpool and spring a surprise which could have huge implications for the group going in the last game.
Daniel Sturridge’s third injury in a row has left Liverpool with a front line lacking cutting edge, completely opposite of the fearsome striker partnership of last year. The England international will be out until the New Year and fellow forward Mario Balotelli, who scored his first goal in the home win against Ludogorets, is likely to miss out with a groin injury. Jordan Henderson is also unlikely to travel after suffering from an illness. Defenders Sakho, Enrique and Flanagan will all miss out with Rodgers more than likely to bring in Alberto Moreno for Glen Johnson and could also throw in Kolo Toure after his impressive display against Madrid to attempt to improve a woeful defence.
Liverpool: Mignolet – Manquillo, Toure, Skrtel, Moreno – Gerrard, Can – Coutinho, Sterling, Lallana – Lambert
Ludogorets: Stoyanov, Minev, Moti, Terziev, Caicara, Alexnadrov, Espinho, Abalo, Dyakob, Marcelinho, Hamza
Only current holders Real Madrid have stamped their authority in this group and have already qualified from the group, needing one point from two games to secure first spot. Mathematically, Liverpool will still not be out of the running if they were to lose on Wednesday, but it would be in extraordinary circumstances if they do. If they gain a draw or a win however, their fate could be in their own hands but it will all depend how Basel fair against Madrid and in the last game against Liverpool themselves which could be a huge knock out clash.
- Liverpool have lost six of their 12 Premier League games this season. They lost six times in the whole of 2013/14.
- Ludogorets have won five of their last seven fixtures in all competitions.
- The Bulgarian side have also won nine out of 13 on their own turf this season, including victories in each of their last four home games.
- Liverpool have not scored in the competition since beating Ludogorets 2-1 at Anfield on Matchday one. They last failed to score in four consecutive European matches in the 2005/06 UEFA Champions League.
- In the 2001/02 UEFA Champions League, Liverpool found themselves in an identical position in the second group stage with three points after four matches. They still managed to qualify as group runners-up with seven points.
- This is Ludogorets’s first home meeting with an English club.
Liverpool: Phillipe Coutinho
Coutinho is a player of flair and trickery and although he hasn’t been able to express himself fully this season in a team where many haven’t, he has the ability to change a game in an instant like in the closing moments at QPR where he helped Liverpool to a 3-2 win. With one goal to his name so far, the Brazilian has created nearly double the amount of chances in the Champions League (9) than in the Premier League (5). If he does start, he will attempt to use his vision and sharp passing to open the Ludogorets defence who may not be used to playing against players of his nature.
Coutinho’s fellow Brazilian is regarded as one of the Bulgarian’s most offensive and dangerous players and has already made his mark on the competition by scoring in the narrow 2-1 defeat to Madrid at home on Matchday 2. So far, he has managed to create seven chances but is yet to register an assist but with a 71% shot accuracy, the midfielder will have an eye on goal and upsetting the Merseyside team.
Ludogorets and everyone involved with the team will have dreamt of nights like this, against the calibre of Liverpool and Madrid and will have the fans firmly behind them in a glamour match for such a small team. Liverpool will need to stamp their authority early but I think if they can stifle the home team, they can eventually wear out and tire the opposition and open them up late on.