LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Steven Gerrard converted a penalty in the third minute of stoppage time to earn Liverpool a 2-1 victory over Ludogorets Razgrad in the Champions League after a frantic finish to the Group B game at Anfield on Tuesday.
Dani Abalo's goal in the opening seconds of injury time cancelled out Mario Balotelli's 82nd-minute strike — his first for Liverpool — and looked like earning a draw for Ludogorets, a Bulgarian minnow making its debut in the competition's group stage.
But goalkeeper Milan Borjan brought down substitute Fabio Borini moments later and Gerrard slotted home the spot kick to complete a successful return to Europe's elite competition for Liverpool after five years out.
It was Liverpool's long-awaited return to what the five-time European champions regard as their habitat and the club played it up, with a sea of flags and scarves decorating all corners of Anfield before kickoff and a mosaic of five European Cups held up by Kop.
They have missed these big European nights in these parts and there was as much relief as joy when Gerrard — the only survivor from Liverpool's last Champions League match in December 2009 — sent Borjan the wrong way from the spot.
But this arguably was an even bigger night for Ludogorets, a team that didn't even exist at the turn of the century and only turned professional in 2010. The Bulgarian champions did not look overawed on the biggest night of their lives, famously made possible by defender Cosmin Moti's penalty saves in a shootout win against Steaua Bucharest in the qualifying playoff when filling in as goalkeeper.
And they could easily have drawn or even won the game, with Roman Bezjak rolling a shot against the foot of the post when clean through with the score at 0-0.
Balotelli had been a peripheral figure until he made a goal out of nothing, controlling Alberto Moreno's cross from the left, beating his marker with a touch and poking a fine finish into the corner for his first goal since joining from AC Milan last month.
Liverpool had been limited to half-chances in a scrappy before that, with Borjan — a Canadian signed on Friday to solve a goalkeeping crisis — not having a shot to save in the first half.
Liverpool's build-up play was inaccurate and predictable, but Jordan Henderson delivered some incisiveness in the 53rd minute when he lofted a pass toward Javier Manquillo. Virgil Misidjan failed to clear and Manquillo, with only Borjan to beat, scooped his shot over the bar.
Ludogorets remained dangerous on the counterattack and when Gerrard lost concentration, Bezjak ran onto a quickly taken throw-in, sprinted clear and poked a shot over in the 66th. The striker then went even closer by hitting the post before a mad finish of three goals in a 10-minute span.