Sunday, 23 June 2013

New Kids on the Eastern Bloc - The Finale

I wrote an article back in March about Ludogorets, a team from the Bulgarian league.  Ludogorets had gained promotion last season to the Premier Division for the first time in their history.

Bulgaria’s top division has been going for 88 years.  57 of those years, the title has been won by either CSKA Sofia (31) or Levski Sofia (26).  With Slavia Sofia also winning 7 titles and Lokomotiv Sofia, 4, clubs from Sofia have won 68 of the 88 league titles.  In the 10 seasons between 2000 and 2009, CSKA and Levski won every title between them, bar one when Lokomotiv Plovdiv won in 2004.

By the mid-season break Ludogorets were top of the league.  Champions League money has made it more difficult for clubs in Europe to come up and win a title at their first attempt, and so this stood out as something to keep an eye.  So I did.

CSKA Sofia were keen to win their title back after Lovech had won the last 2.  They lost their first game back after the winter break but then went on a run of 9 straight wins.

Ludogorets had kept their form going as they won 4 straight matches after the break.  But then it looked as if the wheels had started to come off, as they then lost 3 matches on the trot.  Up to that point they had only been beaten once, when they visited the champions, so many considered this as far as they could go.  They finally ended the run with a 1-0 win away to Levski Sofia, but by this time CSKA were 6pts clear and looking unshakeable.

Both sides won their next 3 matches, and the goals were flowing too. Ludogorets thumped Minyor Pernik, 7-0.  A week later Lovech, the champions, stole a point as they held Ludogorets to a 1-1 draw.  It looked like the new kids were getting a lesson from the big boys.  On the same day, CSKA beat Cherno More, 4-1.  The lead was now 8pts and there were just 5 games to go.

Ludogorets bounced back the following week, travelling to Montana and winning 4-1.  Their joy was extended when they heard how CSKA got on.  A run of 9 successive victories had just come to an end for the league leaders as they went down 0-1 to Levski Sofia.  The lead was back down to 5pts with 4 games left.

CSKA then won comfortably the following week and Ludogorets also won away to Lokomotiv Sofia.  5pts was the gap, just 3 games to go.

CSKA travelled to Minyor Pernik, who Ludogorets had thumped 7 goals past.  Two second half goals gave the home side an unlikely win.  Ludogorets were at home to Chernomorets and went a goal down early on, but 2 goals from Stoyanov and 1 from Gargorov gave them an easy 3-1 win.

The gap was now down to just 2pts with 2 games to go.

The penultimate round of matches saw Ludogorets travel to relegated Kaliakra.  Stoyanov and Gargorov were again on the scoresheet as they won 4-0.  They had done all they could, and were hoping CSKA would come unstuck against the champions, Lovech.  But their hopes were dashed as Junior Moraes scored a hat-trick and CSKA won 4-1.

Ludogorets needed to win their final game and needed CSKA to lose.  Remarkably for the story writers, the final game of the season was these two was against each other!

Ludogorets were at home.  The first meeting between the two had seen CSKA take a 2-0 lead with both goals from Junior Moraes, but then Juninho and Stoyanov scored in the last 4 minutes to grab a point.  If Ludogorets could win the title, that point could be the deciding factor.

23rd March 2012 and the stage was set for the ultimate shootout.  A draw would suit CSKA but they had just lost their last 2 away games.  If Ludogorets could win they would pick up their first Bulgarian title at their first attempt.  6000 fans packed the Ludogorets Arena in Razgrad to cheer their team on.  19 minutes in and 30 year midfielder, Miroslav Ivanov put the home side in front.  The place went wild and CSKA’s recent vulnerability looked to be their undoing.

It was a feisty game with 5 players picking up yellow cards in the first half alone.  Right on half-time, CSKA were down to 10-men as Granchov was sent-off.  1-0 was the score at half-time and Ludogorets were 45 minutes away from making history.  On the hour, Svetoslav Dyakov picked up his 2nd yellow card and received his marching orders too and so both teams were down to 10-men.

In the end, Dyakov’s goal proved to be the only one and, unbelievably, Ludogorets had won the Bulgarian title in their very first season in the top flight.  Imagine a club like Doncaster Rovers going up from the Championship and winning the title first time round, against clubs who share the honours season after season, and then you have some idea of the magnitude of their achievement.

Some European leagues only share the title between a couple of clubs and Bulgaria is no exception.  CSKA threw away the title by losing 3 of their last 5 matches, but Ludogorets won 8 out of their last 9 matches including every one of their last 5.

The title represented a phenomenal season for Ludogorets who two weeks previously had won the Bulgarian Cup.  So, not only had they won major honours for the first time, but they had won the League and Cup double.

Their success was based on a classic combination of scoring goals and not conceding.  They scored 12 more goals than any other team and conceded just 16.  Stoyanov was top scorer with 16 goals, with Gargorov hitting 13.  Whether they can replicate this success next season, remains to be seen but they will certainly enjoy their Champions League experience.

A truly remarkable season.

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