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After five years, Anfield feels whole again on another famous night

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Steven Gerrard celebrates in front of the Kop after scoring a late penalty to win the Champions League game against Ludogorets at Anfield. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Steven Gerrard celebrates in front of the Kop after scoring a late penalty to win the Champions League game against Ludogorets at Anfield. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Steven Gerrard celebrates in front of the Kop after scoring a late penalty to win the Champions League game against Ludogorets at Anfield. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

The roar came later. First came the hush. It hung over the stadium and the surrounding streets in the hours before kick-off as the Liverpool fans made their way in; not boisterous, more contemplative.

Perhaps it was nerves, not so much about the opposition or the result, but the occasion. After five years away, how would it feel? Different? Better? Strange?

By Liverpool's standards, the past few seasons have been pretty strange.

Until last night Anfield had not seen Champions League football since losing 2-1 against Fiorentina in December 2009.

For five years, Liverpool fans were more used to seeing their team on ITV4 than ITV1. The Champions League music, the eyes of the world, the big time - what better hangover cure after the dispiriting defeat by Aston Villa on Saturday?

For Brendan Rodgers, the moment came at training on Sunday morning, when the bag of footballs was brought out and he realised there was something different about them. They were emblazoned with the bronze stars of official Champions League merchandise.

"That brought it home how long the club has been away," Rodgers said before the game. "Too long."

Liverpool is the sort of place where the distinction between football and real life is often blurred. On the front page of yesterday's local Echo newspaper, for example, the splash was about Everton's proposed new stadium in Walton Hall Park. The second lead was about Liverpool's proposed extension to Anfield.

In fact, the only non-football story was about a mum-of-three from Knotty Ash whose washing machine had exploded.

Football runs out of the hot and cold taps on Merseyside. Which was why the years of famine felt so painful.

Liverpool's return to the top table was not going to pass unmarked. "Back In Europe", proclaimed the match-day programme, a bumper 100-page special.

Before the game, coloured cards were laid on all the seats in the Kop. As the teams ran out, they were held up to form a collage of the club's five European Cup trophies. What everyone had failed to account for was Ludogorets Razgrad, who turned out to be very good indeed, subduing the crowd early on with slick passing moves and tidy movement.

It was not until the 20th minute that Liverpool began to get going, but when they did, it was greeted by a special din - a groundswell of noise that evoked the great European roars of the past. They may have been struggling against a team they had never heard of, but at least it was a familiar feeling. They may not have been back with a bang, but at least they were back.

Of course, we should probably not get too carried away here. Champions League nights are special everywhere, from Anfield to Zagreb. But in the five years since they last graced this level of the game, Liverpool have felt somehow incomplete.

And as the old songs rang out around this old ground, it was clear that absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Mario Balotelli was about to be the story that would make people talk about "another famous night" until Ludogorets equalised.

Then, as it had done so often, the Kop sucked a ball towards the opposition goal, Milan Borjan miscontrolled and fouled Javi Manquillo and Steven Gerrard, the skipper, the hero and the match-winner, so often stepped up for a fitting finale. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent