Champions League

Ludogorets ready for Madrid challenge

2014-09-30 08:33
Champions League logo (File)

Sofia - Bulgarian underdogs Ludogorets will look to match the stunning giant-killing exploits of compatriots CSKA Sofia when they make their Champions League home debut against holders Real Madrid on Wednesday.

CSKA, the most successful club in the Balkan country with 31 titles, boast a remarkable record of upsetting the odds, including European Cup wins over then-champions Ajax Amsterdam in 1973, Nottingham Forest in 1980 and Liverpool two years later.

Few people outside Bulgaria could even begin to locate the town of Razgrad, the home of Ludogorets, but their footballers could put it on the map if they upset the millionaires of Madrid at a time when Cristiano Ronaldo is scoring for fun.

CSKA and their bitter city rivals Levski are the traditional powerhouses of Bulgarian football but there is no doubt that the form side of the past three seasons has been Ludogorets.

The Eagles, who won three successive league titles, suffered a rare defeat in the domestic championship, losing 3-2 at Levski on Saturday, but coach Georgi Dermendzhiev described it as "a sobering warning, which came just in time".

"This cold shower will only help us before the match against Real," said regular keeper Vladislav Stoyanov, who missed the opening Group B game at Anfield due to suspension and will replace Canadian stopper Milan Borjan.

Ludogorets produced a classy and confident performance at Liverpool, losing 2-1 after conceding a stoppage-time penalty, but Dermendzhiev is expected to make one more change to his starting lineup.

Former Celta Vigo winger Dani Abalo, who scored the Bulgarian's goal against Liverpool after coming on as substitute, will play instead of the ineffective Virgil Misidjan.

"It won't be easy but we'll do our best because it's a historical match for Ludogorets," Abalo said. "I hope that someday I'll return to La Liga."

With centre-backs Alexandre Barthe and Georgi Terziev still recovering from injury, Dermendzhiev will once again rely on crowd favourite Cosmin Moti and Aleksandar Aleksandrov in the heart of the defence.

Slovenian Roman Bezjak has netted only once in 10 matches this campaign and looks a pale shadow of the goal-scoring machine he was last season, but he will play as a sole striker once again with Tunisia forward Younes Hamza on the bench.

Real have put a stuttering start in La Liga firmly behind them in recent weeks, helped by the prolific form of World Player of the Year Ronaldo, who hit a record 17 goals in last season's triumphant Champions League campaign.

When he struck in Saturday's 2-0 win at Villarreal, the Portugal forward became the first Real player to score 10 goals in the opening six games of the league season, surpassing club greats Alfredo Di Stefano and Amancio Amaro, who jointly held the previous record of nine.

Ronaldo's haul actually came in only five La Liga games as he missed the 4-2 defeat at Real Sociedad and appears to have overcome a couple of niggling injuries that he carried into this season from the end of last term.

The European champions have amassed 20 goals in their last four outings in all competitions, including a 5-1 drubbing of FC Basel in their opening Group B encounter.

"Cristiano is on very good form and that is very good for the team," France centre back Raphael Varane told reporters after the Villarreal game.

Real could have Varane's defensive partner Pepe back on Wednesday. The Portugal international has been sidelined by a muscle injury but returned to training with his team mates on Sunday.

Real have played in Bulgaria only once before, a 1-0 first-leg success at Levski in the first round of the 1979/80 European Cup.

Wednesday's game will be played at the Vasil Levski national stadium in Sofia because the home side's 8,000-capacity Ludogorets Arena is not suitable for high-profile European clashes. 

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