When PFC Litex Lovech host PFC Ludogorets Razgrad later today, many would have expected the Bulgarian champions to be sat at the head of the table with their newly promoted visitors struggling at the opposite end.
But in a remarkable start to their debut campaign in Bulgaria's A League, Ludogorets have take the division by storm, leading the way after winning eight in a row following an opening-day draw with PFC Lokomotiv Plovdiv 1936. Champions for the last two seasons, Litex are seven points off the pace and struggling to keep up. The newcomers have exceeded all expectations and are enjoying making life difficult for Sofia giants PFC CSKA Sofia, PFC Levski Sofia and Litex – and hope to do more damage at the Lovech Stadium as coach Ivaylo Petev returns to his former employers.
With their name roughly translating as 'Crazy Forest', Ludogorets are situated in the north-eastern town of Razgrad, just over 300km from cosmopolitan Sofia. Formed in 1945, they floundered in the lower divisions for 66 years, until the arrival of owner Kiril Domuschiev signalled the dawn of a bright era for the club who won A League status in 2011.
Following promotion, Ludogorets drew attention as coach Petev assembled a completely new side with the acquisitions of French defender Alexandre Barthe from Litex, centre-back Ľubomír Guldan, experienced midfielder Stanislav Genchev and the diminutive former CSKA star Emil Gargorov.
It was expected that these seasoned summer signings would need time to blend with the South American talent already in place in Guilherme Choco and Marcelinho Nascimento da Costa, but the team gelled immediately, making an impact by scoring 21 and conceding just three to date. With Choko and Marcelinho providing width, and Mihail Aleksandrov pace through the middle, the mobile and skilful Gargorov has excelled in a free role, firing in five league goals.
The first real test came against Levski Sofia on 25 September when the capital side were beaten 2-1 in the inaugural game at the new Ludogorets Arena, thanks to goals from Miroslav Ivanov and Gargorov. The win consolidated Ludogorets' fine start, yet there are fixtures at high-flying PSFC Chernomorets Burgas and CSKA to come in the next month.
Today Litex stand in the way of the Eagles' ninth straight victory, and the match will be a special one for 36-year-old coach Petev, who made his name as a player with the Oranges at the turn of the century. "I want to see us and Litex putting on a good game and pleasing the fans," he said. "Litex are still champions and a very tough side. They are strong and I expect them to come out all guns blazing."
He is also philosophical about his charges' title credentials. "My aim is to create a competitive squad," Petev added. "I want the team to play a certain way. The result against Litex is not so important. Our target remains the same as at the beginning of the season – a top-six finish. Our main aim is to play attractive, attacking football. We must not allow a dip in form and we must build on what we have done so far."
A win at his old club would certainly cement his burgeoning reputation on the sidelines and move his new team a step closer to a debut in UEFA competition, which, 15 months ago, was an unthinkable dream.
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