Three Points: Ludogorets vs. Liverpool
A trio of observations from Ludogorets' 2-2 draw with Liverpool in the Champions League on Wednesday.
1. Liverpool's inability to win ugly
"Our season starts tonight," declared Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers in the moments before kickoff against Ludogorets on a freezing night in Bulgaria. "Whatever has happened in the past has gone. We have to make a better story now." They were words clearly designed to offer a rally cry to his troops, and this game needed a mere 123 seconds to highlight the weakness that continues to undermine their cause.
Winning ugly is not an art form Rodgers and his team have embraced this season, and just when it seemed as if they had discovered the route to such a success, their relentless inability to deal with set pieces tripped them up once more.
Victory in this game was required not just to bolster Liverpool's Champions League hopes, but also to kick-start their hitherto disastrous season, and the goals from Rickie Lambert and Jordan Henderson against their spirited Bulgarian opponents appeared to offer Rodgers a route to salvation.
Yet with the clock ticking down and the three points that would have meant so much within touching distance, a late Ludogorets corner always offered the potential to undo Liverpool's good work once again. Few were surprised when it led to the underdog's equaliser.
The goals of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge covered up a multitude of tactical holes in a Liverpool side that thrillingly finished second in the Premier League a year ago, but reality has left a nasty taste in Rodgers' mouth time and again in recent months, and this was another painful setback for him to stomach.
No team with genuine ambition can thrive if they shiver with trepidation every time their opponents whip a ball into the box. While fingers can be pointed at keeper Simon Mignolet, the man who needs to find a solution to this problem seems incapable of solving it.
If Rodgers was the tactical master some hailed him to be not long ago, he could have found a way to halt Liverpool's set-piece calamities. That he is not answering the issue that continues to undermine his team is becoming an issue that may soon put his future at Anfield under the microscope.
2. Lambert's honest approach
Lambert's transfer to his hometown club last summer was hailed as a fairy tale by the man who realised his dream by signing for Liverpool, yet the reluctance of Rodgers to use the England striker in the opening weeks of the season has been inexplicable.
Rodgers has hinted in news conferences that he told Lambert he would be used only as a substitute this season and his determination to use the target man in a backup role has not wavered, despite the injury to lead striker Daniel Sturridge and the woeful form of summer capture Mario Balotelli.
Those who have followed Lambert's career from his time in the lower leagues of English football to his rise as a World Cup player last summer will confirm that this is a player who needs to play on a regular basis if he is to perform at his best, so it was no surprise that he struggled to shine when he got his fleeting glimpses of action.
With his place in the team finally assured as he scored against Crystal Palace last weekend and the vital equaliser in this game, the qualities he could bring to this Liverpool side were emphasised once again.
Lambert's honesty and eagerness to work the forward line tirelessly are just what a bedraggled Liverpool team require at a time when some of their star turns from last season have shown they lack some energy in key games. In addition, his underrated first touch means he is a player who offers more to Liverpool than a direct route to goal.
Quite why Rodgers waited so long to let Lambert off his leash is a question the Liverpool boss should answer, but the Plan B he refused to contemplate for much of this troubled season is now reaping some reward.
3. The Mignolet debate
"He is worse than Dracula because at least Dracula comes out of his coffin now and again. Mignolet seems to stay on his line and that's it."
The cutting words of Liverpool's 1984 European Cup winning goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar as he assessed the Reds' current No. 1 will have done little to enhance the fragile confidence of the Belgian stopper, and this was another night where he used up a few more of the lives he has left at Anfield.
Marcelinho's early shot may have taken a horrible kick of a frosty pitch in Bulgaria, but Mignolet's inability to deal with the unexpected turn of events as he handed the home side the opening goal cemented the belief many have had for some time that he is the weak link in a Liverpool defence that simply cannot keep clean sheets.
As Ludogorets took advantage of Mignolet's failing to snatch a lead in a tie Liverpool dare not lose, the under-pressure manager who has put all his faith in the 26-year-old stopper may have come to the conclusion that the time had come to accept his mistake on yet another high-profile transfer and ponder a change.
Mignolet was initially hailed as an inspirational purchase when he was hired to replace the high-earning Pepe Reina in the summer of 2013, but it quickly became clear that this fine shot stopper could not command his box in a manner the best keepers in the game can and Ludogorets was clearly keen to target his weakness.
The eagerness of the home side to try to win free kicks around the box and accumulate corners was a clear attempt to pick on Mignolet's uncertainty when dealing with crosses, and when the ball was delivered into decent areas, Liverpool's No. 1 looked ready to crack.
Could Mignolet have come for the cross that led to Ludogorets' late equaliser? Many will argue he was blameless on this occasion, but the lack of confidence in the Liverpool defence he backs up stems from the uncertain custodian they have at their backs.
So this is the time for Rodgers to hold his hands up and accept he got this one wrong. Mignolet has long since been teetering on the brink of being a liability as his side's final line of defence, and the moment may have come for the boss to cut his loses and attempt to address the enduring flaw in his side's makeup when the transfer window opens in January.