Liverpool – Ludogorets Preview: Reds make Champions League return

The Merseyside club are back in Europe’s premier competition for the first time in five years and host the Bulgarian champions at Anfield on Tuesday evening

Liverpool will attempt to overcome a mixed start to the season when they appear in the Champions League for the first time in five years on Tuesday night.

A 1-0 home Premier League loss to Aston Villa on Saturday continued an indifferent start to the campaign for Brendan Rodgers’ men, who have managed just six points from their first four games.

But the prospect of Europe’s elite club competition returning to Anfield certainly offers cause for optimism, especially with Ludogorets representing a comfortable-looking opening fixture in Group B for the five-time winners.

Liverpool fans will be buoyed, too, by Raheem Sterling’s return to the starting line-up on Tuesday. The forward was surprisingly rested by Rodgers against Villa, only coming on as a second-half substitute.

“We have an exciting couple of months and this was a game I felt we could do that,” Rodgers said. “If he didn’t have international football then it would have been the case.

“He is a big player for us but we have built a squad here where I have to trust all the players but as a team and a squad we didn’t deliver. He will certainly play on Tuesday night.”

Sterling will no doubt relish the chance to showcase his skills in the Champions League for the first time – much like Rodgers, who embarks upon his maiden voyage in the competition.

“This game [versus Villa] has gone and we now have to focus on that,” Rodgers said. “There is nothing better than to get going again on Tuesday night in a competition we love. Hopefully we can start that competition with three points.”

Liverpool’s chances will be hampered by the absence of Daniel Sturridge, who will spend a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to a thigh injury.

He is one of many players to have missed the weekend’s clash, with Emre Can (ankle), Martin Skrtel (knock) and Joe Allen (knee) sidelined along with Glen Johnson and Joe Flanagan (both thigh).

With just a three-day turnaround before Tuesday’s encounter, all five are doubtful once more.

It will be a game of firsts for Ludogorets, who have never appeared in the tournament or played in England previously.

They reached this phase by coming through a tricky qualifying campaign, defeating Luxembourg’s F91 Dudelange, Serbia’s FK Partizan and Romanian side Steaua Bucharest.

Ludogorets have begun the Bulgarian season solidly, picking up 15 points in eight games to sit third in the table. They will take on Liverpool amid something of a goalkeeping crisis, however.

First choice Vladislav Stoyanov is missing as he serves a one-match suspension, while his understudy, Ivan Cvorovic, has a shoulder injury.

That leaves coach Georgi Dermendzhiev relying on 23-year-old Georgi Argilashki, though defender Cosmin Moti was the unlikely goalkeeping hero when he saved two penalties in the shoot-out victory over Steaua.

“Argilashki is a quality keeper,” said Dermendzhiev. “He was part of the team for three years now and we can rely on him.”

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