For all the rich possibilities of the new Champions League campaign at Anfield, it will take something special from Liverpool this season to match the drama their opening visitors, Ludogorets Razgrad, have already scripted simply to be there with them.
After all, the Bulgarian newcomers are only rubbing shoulders with the Reds thanks to Cosmin Moti, the Romania international defender who morphed into a goalkeeping hero in their play-off penalty shoot-out against Steaua Bucharest.
With keeper Vladislav Stoyanov sent off he took the gloves and, as he told The Independent, duly “got lucky” against the team he once faced in local derbies with Dinamo Bucharest.
Reliving that night at Sofia’s National Stadium, he said: “I’d never been in goal in a real game, not even really in training – only to joke around. But I had no pressure on me. For me it was like, ‘OK, if I save one it will be great’.”
As it was, the 29-year-old saved two – and scored one for good measure – and it was more than great. The team from a town of 35,000 people, were bound for Anfield and the Bernabeu. Moreover, a club with an average home crowd of 3,405 and summer transfer spend of £2.4m could look forward to an estimated minimum windfall of £12m.
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It was a crazy night,” said Moti. “It was the next day when everybody tried to call me that I realised how special it was. It is a dream for every player from this team. It is a chance for us to play the best – we are meeting two of the best teams in the world, and another good team in Basel.”
In the Champions League context, Ludogorets’s rise is a fairy tale, but they are no Cinderellas back at home where the wealth of owner Kiril Domuschiev – a shipping and pharmaceutical tycoon – has made them Bulgarian champions for three years running since their 2011 elevation to the A League. This time 12 months ago they had never won a European game but last term’s run to the last 16 of the Europa League featured four straight away victories and has created confidence, said Moti. “It was a surprise for everybody in Bulgaria. We won at PSV Eindhoven, a big team, and at Lazio [1-0 in the round of 32] and it was a good experience,” he says. “It has helped us for this year.”
It was all the more impressive for the fact their home ties were played 250 miles from Razgrad. The 6,600-capacity Ludogorets Arena is not fit for Uefa matches, hence the relocation to Sofia where against Valencia in the round of 16, the national anthem was sung before kick-off to stir up a capacity crowd. “Last year against Lazio there were 35-40,000 people; with Valencia it was the same and they were all behind us.”
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Balotelli 'relishing' being main striker Now for the really big guns. “It will be hard to win or get a point from Liverpool and Real Madrid but I don’t want people to think we will go there thinking we are beaten – we will go to [Anfield] to play,” said Moti. “I hope we can play good football and that afterwards we can hold our heads up high.”
Moti alone among the Ludogorets squad has overcome Merseyside opposition before – he was in the Dinamo Bucharest team that beat David Moyes’s Everton 5-1 in a Uefa Cup first-round match in 2005. “I remember Duncan Ferguson, Phil Neville too – they had a good team. We didn’t expect to win 5-1.”
He faced Everton again when Ludogorets drew 1-1 at Goodison in a friendly behind closed doors two summers ago. Anfield will be somewhat noisier at kick-off tonight, but probably equally eerie should Ludogorets upset the odds once more.
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