When the chips are down you look for your players to stand up tall and be counted.
Brendan Rodgers saw his Liverpool side do just that in Sofia on Wednesday as the Reds drew 2-2 in testing conditions in the Bulgarian capital to keep their UEFA Champions League hopes alive.
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Yes, a 2-2 drew against Bulgarian minnows hardly suggests Liverpool’s season has gained new impetus, but they have at least stopped the rot of losing four-straight matches and now have a crunch ‘winner takes all’ clash against FC Basel on Dec. 9 to look forward to.
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A win in that match will send Rodgers’ men into the last 16 of the UCL and sandwiched in-between that vital clash are three very winnable Premier League games against Stoke City, Leicester City and Sunderland. This is a crucial stretch in Liverpool’s season and Rodgers was pleased with the fight he he saw in Sofia.
“To go a goal behind so early on you really need a team that is together and I think the character of the team came out,” Rodgers said. “We spoke before the game that this needs to be the night to change our season and for that we needed to show the character in our team. We are disappointed with the goal we conceded in the end but is irrelevant, we need to beat Basel in the final game.”
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Rodgers was pleased with the character of his players on the pitch and most of them the side he selected were familiar figures as Liverpool’s boss went with tried and tested players. The likes of Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Fabio Borini were on the bench, while going with the experience of veteran striker Rickie Lambert paid off as the England international has now scored two in two after notching his first-ever UCL goal on his first start in the competition. Raheem Sterling was back to his best to set up Jordan Henderson for the second and the latter looked at home alongside Lucas Leiva in central midfield.
Rodgers was asked afterwards why he went with a lineup similar to the one we saw in 2013-14 and used just a smattering of new faces.
“I picked players I know what they are capable of,” Rodgers said bluntly. “In time the new players will adapt to how we work. This is a real confidence boost for us, because Ludogorets are a really difficult team to play against.”
Rodgers was correct to go with experience, but there were still plenty of worrying signs from his team who are without a win in their last five outings. Playing Steven Gerrard in a more advanced role didn’t work, while Simon Mignolet had a shocker on Ludogorets’ opener as he let a fairly routine effort bobble out of his grasp after Kolo Toure had given the ball away cheaply. In the 88th minute the Reds also coughed up a set piece equalizer — that’s the 13th set piece goal they’ve given up this season — as substitute Alberto Moreno switched off at the near post to keep the Merseyside clubs winless streak running.
As we’ve seen from their PL performances, there is still plenty for Liverpool to improve on this season as their recent defeat to Crystal Palace proved. But this draw against Ludogorets had handed them a lifeline in the Champions League and a win against Basel in a cauldron of noise at Anfield will see Liverpool reach the last 16.
Because of that, their season is far from over. Between now and their showdown with the Swiss champions in two weeks time, expect to see a fired up Liverpool outfit in league play. On this showing their spirit is back. That was a key component of their incredible run last season, but has Rodgers’ side truly rediscovered that? He hopes so, as promising signs emanated from the bitter cold of Sofia on Wednesday.