With PFC Litex Lovech needing two points from their final three games to claim a third Bulgarian title, following successes in 1997/98 and 1998/99, forward Ivelin Popov is set for a first taste of glory.
Angel Chervenkov's side are seven points clear of second-placed PFC CSKA Sofia – and the champagne is on ice for the Oranges' 22-year-old captain. "We have a comfortable lead and the championship looks within touching distance," he told UEFA.com, "but it isn't over yet. We have to win one more game and we are completely focused on that. We all believe we have the necessary qualities and mental strength to take the vital last step."
Having missed most of the autumn campaign with a foot injury, Popov has shone in the spring, scoring five of his six A League goals this season. "I am playing some of the best football of my career, but it is all down to the team," said the 13-times international.
"We are a very solid unit, a nice blend of experienced players like Radostin Kishishev and Svetoslav Todorov, promising youngsters such as Georgi Milanov and excellent imports like my French strike partner Wilfried Niflore. We know we have to work hard to be successful and our efforts appear to be paying off."
Should they take the crown, Litex will enter UEFA Champions League qualifying, where Popov is eager to impress. "Last season we were eliminated by BATE Borisov in the Europa League [play-offs]," he said. "Now we want to prove ourselves. We want to do well and show what we are capable of. The summer will be very important and we must prepare as best as possible for Europe."
It may be, however, that Popov is whisked abroad before that happens. Having trained with Feyenoord as a 17-year-old, he has not lost his appetite for a bigger stage. "I am more mature now," he said, "I am not a teenager any more. I know that only giving 100% and training hard will enable me to become one of Bulgaria's best players.
When I was at Feyenoord, I was very young and it was really difficult, but I saw what it is like to be at such a great club. At the time, Ruud Gullit was the coach and Mario Been in charge of the youth teams. It was a great experience, being there and training under such coaches. Now I feel stronger and more confident, and it is logical to think about playing abroad again. But first we have a job to finish at Litex."
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