Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bulgaria Update

After a boring 0-0 draw in Bulgaria, last week the Bulgarian champion Ludogorets Razgrad went to Belgrade, Serbia, for a thrilling second leg of its match with Partizan in the Third Qualifying Round.

Ludogorets doesn't mess around.  Last year, they changed coaches during their Champions' League run -- and this year they reacted to the 0-0 draw by sacking Stoicho Stoev, who had coached the team for the last 12 months (winning both the Bulgarian League and Cup titles along the way).  Stoev was replaced by Georgi Dermendzhiev, who had been running the Ludogorets academy, which helps to train young players.  He was then given the task of pulling out a victory in Belgrade.

It turns out that Ludogorets has at least one player from Brazil.  His name is Marcelinho, and he's been there for the last three seasons.  He's 29 years old, and in Belgrade he quickly took over the game, scoring in the 19th and 21st minutes to put the Bulgarian champions up 2-0.

But Partizan wasn't done.  They game roaring back with goals in the 30th and 35th minute to make the score 2-2.  Since the first leg finished 0-0, the aggregate score was also 2-2.  However, the teams were not really tied.  In a two-leg match of this kind in the Champions League, if a match ends in an aggregate tie the winner is the team that has scored the most away goals.  In this case, Ludogorets had two away goals, while Partizan had none.  So Partizan needed to score at least one more time.

In the 41st minute, however, Branislav Trajkovic -- a Partizan midfielder -- was shown a red card, thus putting Partizan down to 10 men.  Partizan continued attacking anyway, pressing forward for a third goal, and both sides had good chances in the second half.  But no further goals were scored, and Ludogorets advanced on away goals.  The Serbians themselves seemed to think that Ludogorets was the better team.

So now, for the second year in a row, Ludogorets Razgrad is only one victory from reaching the Champions' League Group Stage.  That would be a huge achievement -- similar to a team from the OVC reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament.  Only one Bulgarian team -- Levski Sofia in the 2006/07 season, has reached the Group Stage.

To get there, however, Ludogorets has to beat Steaua Bucharest, the champions of Romania.  Steaua Bucharest got here by beating Stromsgodset I.F. (from Norway), 3-0 on aggregate in the Second Qualifying Round, and beating F.C. Aktobe (from Kazakhstan), 4-3 on aggregate in the Third Qualifying Round.  They are a very serious opponent, having won the Romanian title 25 times, and the European Championship once (in 1985/86).  Steaua Bucharest made the Group Stage last year, going 0-3-3 against Schalke 04 (from Germany), Chelsea (from England), and Basel (from Switzerland).

This will be another two-leg match.  The first match, on August 19, will take place in Bucharest, Romania.  The return match, on August 27, will be played in Sofia, Bulgaria at the Bulgarian national stadium.  (Ludogorets's actual home stadium does not meet UEFA standards for a match of this level.)  The British oddsmakers rate this match as a toss-up, with both teams being given almost the same odds to advance.

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