Ludogorets – Remember the name
These last couple of years has seen the emergence of clubs from unfashionable parts of Europe, to start to shake things about.
BATE Borisov from Belarus and APOEL Nicosia from Cyprus, are just two examples of clubs who have exceeded expectations. Could the next one be PFC Ludogorets from Razgrad in Bulgaria.
The club emerged from the ashes of Ludogorets who went bust in 2006. They’d only ever managed to compete in Bulgaria’s top division on a couple of occasions since they were formed in 1945. After the club was dissolved, the new club, PFC Ludogorets was installed in the Third tier of Bulgarian football, V Amateur Football Group (VAFG).
They took four years to get out of that division, but in 2010 a 2nd place finish meant they progressed to the B Professional Football Group (BPFG), Bulgaria’s 2nd Division. Rather than take their time to find their feet, Ludogorets won the division by 8pts. So now they were in Bulgaria’s Premier League, known as A Professional Football Group (APFG).
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.
But things are changing in Bulgarian football. It is now 3 years since a club from Sofia won the league championship, Levski in 2009. CSKA last won the title in 2008. The new kids on the block has been Litex Lovech. Lovech is a town in north-central Bulgaria with a population of just over 36,000. They won back-to-back titles in 1998 and 1999, but then the Sofia giants took over.
Razgrad is a city in North East Bulgaria, in an industrial centre, about 300km from Sofia. For some leagues around Europe, any club from outside the capital city would find it virtually impossible to break the stranglehold of the big clubs. But Ludogorets and Litex seem to be giving it a good go.
In October 2010 a businessman, Kiril Domushiev bought the club with just one aim, which was to take them into the top division of Bulgarian football. By May 2011 they had achieved that goal at their first attempt. But it is what has happened since that has grabbed the headlines.
As things stand at the halfway stage of the season, Ludogorets sit 3pts clear at the top of the table. They’re clear of three clubs, including Levski and CSKA. Litex are back in 5th place, 8pts off the pace. Ludogorets has lost just 1 match in the 16 they have played so far.
Ludogorets are coached by Ivaylo Petev, who won league championship medals with Litex in 1998 and 1999. Petev has begun to build on last season’s success with players such as French defender, Alexandre Barthe, from Litex, centre-back Lubomir Guldan and experienced midfield player, Stanislav Genchev. He has also signed Emil Gargorov, formerly a star at CSKA. These players have fitted in straight away alongside the South American talent that helped them win promotion last season. In a squad of 24 players, only 11 are from Bulgaria. Brazilians, Guilerme Choco, Marcelinho Nascimento da Costa and Juninho Quixada play alongside three Slovakians, including Guldan. Bulgarian striker, Ivan Stoyanov is also in the team. He is the nephew of former Bulgarian international Yordan Letchkov, who was key member of the Bulgarian side that reached the Semi-Finals of USA ’94.
Ludogorets first match of the season was at home to Lokomotiv Plovdiv, who’d finished 5th last season and just missed out on a place in the Europa League on goal difference. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, and many would’ve thought Ludogorets had done well to gain a point in their first match in the big time. They went onto win the next 8! This run of games included a 6-0 thrashing of Slavia Sofia, with Gargorov getting a hat-trick. People really started to take notice when, in September, they took on Levski Sofia and goals from Ivanov and Gargorov gave them a 2-1 win.
This run came to an end when they travelled to Lovech to meet the champions. Goals from Yanev and Milanov had the home side 2-0 up in 21 minutes. Marcelinho then got a goal back for Ludogorets with his 4th of the season. But the visitors couldn’t get the equaliser and Litex were satsifed they’d put the ‘young pups’ in their place.
Rather than knock them off their perch, that result seemed to strengthen Ludogorets resolve. They were unbeaten in their next 4 matches, although they dropped 4pts during that period, but that was to teams in 2nd and 3rd place. Whereas Litex have since lost to Lokomotiv Plovdiv and CSKA Sofia.
Bulgarian football is now back after its winter break and the chase is on to catch Ludogorets. Of the 4 clubs immediately below them, only CSKA have already visited the Ludogorets Arena, and as Ludogorets are unbeaten at home, they would feel confident of holding off the challenge.
Whether Ludogorets has the ability to replicate APOEL or BATE remains to be seen, but it is another example of opportunities opening up parts of Europe once considered remote, in football terms.
Update 27th March
Game Day 17 saw 5 of the top 6 win. The exception was 2nd placed, Chernomorets, who went down 0-2 at Lokomotiv Plovdiv. The leaders, Ludogorets, continued their excellent form with a 5-0 win over relegation threatened, Vidima.
Into Game Day 18 and Ludogorets gained another 5-0 win as they beat bottom club, Svetkavitsa. Although, the scoreline probably flattered them as they scored 4 of those goals in the final 10 minutes. Chernomorets then dropped more points as they were held at home, 2-2, by Zagora. Champions, Litex Lovech beat Slavia Sofia, 1-0. Levskia and CSKA Sofia both won, 2-0.
Wednesday 21st March saw Ludogorets run come to an end. Four straight wins, 16 goals scored and none conceded, had seen them look as if there was no stopping them. It seemed as if they’d carry this on when they went to Lokomotiv Plovdiv, but Venkov’s goal just into the second half, gave Plovdiv their 2nd win over a top 2 club, in recent weeks.
CSKA Sofia thumped Lokomotiv Sofia, 4-0, and Levski Sofia went to Slavia Sofia and came away with a 3-0 win. Both CSKA and Levski have begun very well after the winter break.
Then Game Day 20 saw CSKA Sofia go to the top of the table. A 3-0 win at Plovdiv, who’d just ended Ludogorets unbeaten run, put them 3pts clear. Since the winter break, they lost their first match back, but have since won 4 straight, scoring 12 and conceding just 1.
Ludogorets suffered their 2nd successive defeat as they went down 2-3 to Slavia Sofia. Slavia scored first, but then Barthe and Aleksandrov put Ludogorets 2-1 up. But Slavia came back to take all 3pts, to see Ludogorets knocked off the top of the table for the first time in months. They are joined on 45pts by Levski Sofia, who themselves missed a chance as they were beaten at home 0-1 by Minior Pernik. Chernomorets and Litex are just below the Europa League places as the season moves towards the final 3rd.
Update 3rd April 2012
A busy period in the Bulgarian League with 2 games played in the week for each club. CSKA Sofia has opened up a 6pt lead at the top as they continue their excellent form after the winter break. Since losing their first game back, CSKA has now won their last 6, conceding just once and none in their last 5. They beat Pfc Beroe Stara and Vidima Rakovski both 1-0.
Early leaders, Ludogorets suffered their 3rd successive defeat and their first at home, as they went down 0-2 to Cherno More Varna. They then managed to stop the rot as they travelled were up against 3rd placed Levski Sofia. Levski, had just lost, 0-1 to the reigning champions, Litex Lovech. This represented their 2nd successive defeat after a run of 8 straight wins.
Igor Stoyanov put Ludogorets in front in the 36th minute, for what proved to be, the only goal of the game. Three players were sent-off in the final 3 minutes as the home side, Levski, ended up with 9 men.
Levski’s wobble has meant they have been overtaken by Chernomorets Burgas and Litex Lovech. Chernomorets are on a good run, of 1 defeat in their last 14 matches. They earned their 3rd successive win when they thrashed Svetkavitsa, 6-0. Their winning run was halted by a 1-1 draw at Slavia Sofia, but they’re unbeaten in 5 and into 3rd place.
Litex Lovech, winners for the past two seasons, have moved into 4th place, although they’re 7pts off the pace. Like CSKA, they’ve been brilliant since the break. Unbeaten during that period in their 8 matches, as they beat Levski Sofia, 1-0 and then Botev Vratsa, 3-1.
At the bottom, Svetkavitsa look in desperate trouble. Just 7pts from their 22 matches so far and they’re still 10pts from safety. The bottom two clubs go down with the club in 14th competing in a play-off to determine the 3rd relegated club. Kaliakra also looked doomed.
Unbelievably, both clubs picked up a win in the last couple of games. For Svetkavitsa, it was their first win of the season. They beat Kaliakra, 1-0. Kaliakra had just beaten the side immediately above them, Vidima, 3-2 with a goal from Dimitrov in the 90th minute.
Things are looking a little tricky for Lokomotiv Sofia. Four times winners of the Bulgarian League, have 1 win in 10 and just 1pt from their last 6 matches. Back-to-back 0-3 defeats has seen them drop to just above the danger zone.
So, with 8 games to go it looks like CSKA’s title to lose. They are keen to add to their 31 championships, as they have seen rival clubs win the past 3 titles. For a club so successful domestically, 1 title in the past 7 is not good enough. The battle could all be about the two Europa League places with 4 clubs in contention at the moment