By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of the Sofia Globe
Bulgaria’s three-time champions Ludogorets Razgrad were handed a short trip across the Danube River, drawing Steaua Bucharest as their opponent in the Uefa Champions League play-off round.
The first match, on August 19 or 20, will be played in Bucharest, with the return leg a week later to be played in Sofia – Ludogorets plays its European matches in the national stadium in the Bulgarian capital city because its own stadium does not meet Uefa criteria.
Ludogorets was initially due to be among the seeded teams, like Steaua, which would have prevented being drawn against the Romanian club, who won the European Champions Cup in 1986.
But Ludogorets was dropped into the un-seeded urn after Uefa decided to punish Legia Warsaw for fielding an ineligible player against Scottish champions Celtic on August 6, which resulted in a forfeit for the Polish champions and Celtic advancing to the play-off round instead of Legia.
This will be the second tie Ludogorets plays against a neighbouring country’s champion in this year’s Champions League qualifying. Earlier this week, Ludogorets eliminated Partizan Belgrade with an aggregate score of 2-2 – both matches ended in draws, 0-0 in Sofia and 2-2 in Belgrade, with Ludogorets advancing on the away goals rule. Last year, Ludogorets beat Partizan at the same stage of the competition as well.
Ludogorets is making a bid to become only the second Bulgarian team to feature in the Champions League group stage. Levski Sofia is, to date, the only Bulgarian club to have managed the feat, in the 2006/07 season, when it was drawn against Barcelona, Chelsea and Werder Bremen – the club lost all of its matches, scoring only one goal and conceding 17.
This is also the second straight year that Ludogorets has advanced to the play-off round. Last season, the club lost its tie against Basel 2-6 on aggregate, but went on to have a successful campaign in the Uefa Europa League, where Ludogorets topped its group (which included Dinamo Zagreb, among others) and then eliminated Lazio in the first knock-out round, before losing to Valencia in the round of last 16.
The Champions League draw on August 8 also featured Slovenian champions Maribor, who will play against Celtic, and Cypriot champions Apoel, who will face Denmark’s AaB.
(Ludogorets’ players celebrate winning the club’s third title in as many seasons on May 7 2014. Photo: Ludogorets PFC)