Liverpool Primed for Champions League Return

Liverpool will host Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad at Anfield - the venue's first Champions League match in five years.

Updated: September 15, 2014 08:22 IST
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Steven Gerrard Sterling
Liverpool's Steven Gerrard (R) scores his team's second goal from a penalty during their English Premier League soccer match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.

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Liverpool: Champions League football will return to Anfield for the first time in five years on Tuesday when Liverpool host Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad in their opening Group B fixture.

It was December 2009 when Liverpool last played a match in Europe's elite competition, losing 2-1 at home to Fiorentina, and the only two survivors from that game in their squad are Martin Skrtel and captain Steven Gerrard. (Also read: When Liverpool crashed to Aston Villa | Rodgers promises Sterling's return)

Four years in the wilderness followed -- the legacy of finishing seventh, sixth, eighth and seventh in the Premier League -- before last season's thrilling title tilt catapulted the five-time European champions back into the big time.

"We can't wait to get going. It is so exciting as we worked really hard last season to get into the top four and now we get rewarded for that by being in the Champions League this year," Gerrard told Radio City.

"You are almost jealous and envious of the players who have been playing in it over the years when we have missed out."

The figurehead of Liverpool's stunning comeback against AC Milan in the 2005 final in Istanbul, Gerrard has already engraved his name in the club's European folklore.

If he harbours any regrets on his return to the Champions League, it will be over the absence of Luis Suarez, who was sold to Barcelona after his 31 goals helped Liverpool secure second place last season.

A thigh injury to Daniel Sturridge means that Liverpool will be without the strike-force that helped bring a swagger back to Anfield in 2013-14.

But several key performers from last season will be able to experience the Champions League for the first time, including in-form winger Raheem Sterling.

Manager Brendan Rodgers, architect of the club's renaissance, has confirmed that the 19-year-old will return to the starting XI after being rested for Saturday's 1-0 loss to Aston Villa.

- 'Where the club belongs' -

Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana -- who made his debut against Villa -- will also sample the Champions League for the first time, but Emre Can and Lazar Markovic are suspended and there are injury doubts over Skrtel, Glen Johnson, Jon Flanagan and Joe Allen.

"It's a huge game and a huge honour to play for Liverpool in the Champions League," said Lallana. "It's where the club belongs."

With Basel and defending champions Real Madrid the other teams in the group, Liverpool have extra incentive to mark their return to the competition with what would be their 100th win in the European Cup.

But although Ludogorets are making their first appearance in the group phase and have never played in England before, there is nothing to suggest they will accept the role of sacrificial lambs.

The team from the northeastern Bulgarian city of Razgrad produced the sensation of the play-off round by beating Steaua Bucharest 6-5 on penalties, with Romanian defender Cosmin Moti saving two spot-kicks after goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov had been sent off.

It came after an impressive run to the last 16 of the Europa League last season, when they won four successive away games against PSV Eindhoven, Chornomorets Odessa, Dinamo Zagreb and Lazio before finally falling to Valencia.

Stoyanov's dismissal against Steaua means that he is suspended for Tuesday's game and with second-choice goalkeeper Ivan Cvorovic ruled out by a shoulder injury, coach Georgi Dermendzhiev must turn to the untried Georgi Argilashki.

"It is tough company, no doubt about it," said Dermendzhiev, whose side are the second Bulgarian team to reach the group stage after Levski Sofia in 2006.

"We have already achieved a lot, but we must forget the Steaua game. It is in the past. Now we are looking forward to the group stage."

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