Rodgers aiming for knockouts on Euro return

 
Ross McLean
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Mario Balotelli will lead the Liverpool line
LIVERPOOL boss Brendan Rodgers insists anything short of the knockout stages will be deemed a failure as his side make their long-awaiting Champions League return against Bulgarian outfit Ludogorets Razgrad at Anfield tonight.

The five-time winners have not featured in European football’s premier competition since 2009 and have been drawn alongside star-studded Real Madrid and Basel as well as unheralded Ludogorets.

With the tournament entrenched within the club’s fabric, Rodgers is adamant Liverpool’s European progress this term is a rite of passage following the heroics of last season’s league campaign.

“Success is about qualifying from the group,” said Rodgers. “We will take it one game at a time but the overall first objective is to perform well and get out of the group and qualify from it.

“It is only the last couple of days that it has been brought home how long it has been away. This was my main priority to get the club at this level and we deserve the right to be in it, last season was a great year.”

Rodgers, meanwhile, has backed striker Mario Balotelli to shoulder the responsibility of the club’s goalscoring exploits in the continued absence of England marksman Daniel Sturridge.

The 24-year-old was innocuous in attack as Liverpool fired blanks during Saturday’s defeat to Aston Villa, although Rodgers is confident Balotelli – the Liverpool squad’s third most experienced European performer behind Steven Gerrard and Kolo Toure – can thrive.

Rodgers added: “The best players enjoy that responsibility and I am sure he is going to accept that responsibility knowing he has been brought in here to do a job which is to create and score goals.

“He is arguably one of the most experienced players we have in terms of this competition and international calibre and indeed at club level.”