Ludogorets leveller rocks Liverpool but progress still possible
Liverpool's Champions League hopes remain alive after their first goals in the competition since mid-September but a late Ludogorets equaliser saw them leave Bulgaria disappointed.
A dogged performance with few of the hallmarks of manager Brendan Rodgers' preferred way of playing brought an end to a four-match losing run and would have repaired some badly damaged confidence had it not been for that late lapse in the Vasil Levski National Stadium, their hosts' home from home due to their own ground not meeting UEFA criteria,
They did, however, show resilience to recover from goalkeeper Simon Mignolet's third-minute blunder as Rickie Lambert scored his second in as many games before Jordan Henderson scored the vital second just before half-time, only for Georgi Terziev to nick an equaliser to secure a 2-2 draw at the death.
With Basle losing at home to Real Madrid it means Liverpool have to beat the Swiss at Anfield in a fortnight to progress to the knockout stage.
Much of the debate following Sunday's defeat at Crystal Palace surrounded the team's capacity to dominate matches after former vice-captain Jamie Carragher said they were physically and mentally weak.
In an attempt to end a four-match losing streak - and presumably to add some much-needed mettle - Rodgers brought back central defender Kolo Toure after his impressive performance last time out against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu.
However, of more significance was the decision to return Lucas Leiva to the holding role which he had performed with honours up until about 18 months ago when he was usurped by Gerrard.
Despite pinning much of his strategy on the former England midfielder performing the 'playmaker' duties in front of the back four it has patently not worked this season with the 34-year-old becoming increasingly exposed just because his team do not carry the same threat up front now with Luis Suarez gone and Daniel Sturridge injured.
Another straight-to-the-point observation from Carragher, a close friend of Gerrard, was that his former team-mate is not cut out to play a defensive role to the standard the likes of Dietmar Hamann, Javier Mascherano and, to a lesser degree, Lucas have done before him.
Rodgers will deny he took that on board but Gerrard was indeed pushed into the number 10 position where he enjoyed many of his best years.
With Lucas alongside Joe Allen in a flat midfield four Liverpool should have been more solid but that theory was dispelled just after kick-off, although Mignolet was far more culpable than either of the two central midfielders.
Marcelinho's shot from outside the area was fumbled by the goalkeeper, who had not had chance to train on the pitch as Rodgers held a session at Melwood before the squad flew out to Bulgaria and Dani Abalo followed in to score.
Mignolet's already-fragile confidence became even more frayed and he later flapped at one cross, creating a moment of panic in a packed penalty area, and only managed to half-stop a bouncing free-kick from Fabio Espinho, while his nerves will not have been helped by Toure sliding a cross inches past his left-hand post.
The goal did not turn out to the body blow feared, however, as within five minutes they were level when Lambert somehow managed to meet his own flick-on from Henderson's pump forward and nod in off the post.
Gerrard was finding more space in the Ludogorets half than he had done for most of the season in his own but it was Sterling's pace and perfect left-footed cross after being released by Lambert when the hosts lost possession on halfway which created the second for Henderson to convert at the far post in the 37th minute.
Sterling's trickery created Liverpool's best chance of the second half when, after weaving his way into the penalty area, Lambert's low header was blocked only for Henderson to blaze over from six yards but his blushes were spared by pernickity referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blowing for a foul on the goalkeeper.
Having gained a lead the plan after the break was to hold it and counter with Sterling's pace and Ludogorets had to resort to unfair means to stop him.
He should have put the match beyond doubt 10 minutes from time when played through by Gerrard and Terziev's conversion at an 88th-minute corner took some of the shine off the result.
However, it did not alter the target in two weeks' time.