Four months ago, the future of four-time Bulgarian champions PFC Litex Lovech was hanging in the balance. Coach Hristo Stoichkov departed the club, star player Georgi Milanov joined Russian champions PFC CSKA Moskva and a merger with PFC CSKA Sofia was on the horizon.
Fast-forward and Litex are sitting pretty. Beaten just once in 15 matches, they are unexpectedly level on points with reigning champions PFC Ludogorets Razgrad at the A League summit. New coach Zlatomir Zagorchich is the man who has orchestrated this phoenix-like ascension, though he tells UEFA.com that Litex's fountain of youth is the secret to success.
"Yes, it was very hard in the summer with all this uncertainty surrounding the club," said Zagorchich, a former defender who won two Bulgarian championships with Litex. "We just rolled our sleeves up and started to work. We are renowned for our quality young players, but we needed to blend them with experience. It has worked very well."
The academy products are certainly catching the eye and proof of their increasing influence came in a recent 4-2 triumph at Ludogorets. Litex fielded nine Bulgarian players while their opponents, currently taking UEFA Europa League Group B by storm, selected only three.
"It was a great win which provides a big psychological boost for the youngsters," explained the 42-year-old tactician. "They will believe they are as good as the best players in the league. More Bulgarian clubs should begin to develop local talent. Some have, and it will only benefit Bulgarian football. We are reaping the harvest of our academy, with several established young players who are doing a fantastic job. They will only get better," says Zagorchich.
Fourteen of Litex's 23-man squad are academy graduates, with 20-year-old Simeon Slavchev the autumn revelation. Mirroring the club's unforeseen rise, the naturally defensive midfielder is surprisingly Litex's top scorer with seven goals. Slavchev was rewarded with his first senior cap in the last FIFA World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic in Sofia.
Indeed, the national team is also profiting from the Litex talent factory. Bulgaria's backbone is made up of Litex alumni, from captain Ivelin Popov, to Georgi Milanov, Petar Zanev and Stanislav Manolev. It is a fact that delights Zagorchich. "We are very proud of this. Under coach Luboslav Penev there are positive signs and the emergence of talented youngsters is a guarantee of future improvement," waxed 23-time international Zagorchich.
Just as Bulgaria have their sights trained on winning a place at UEFA EURO 2016, Litex's fine start has inspired dreams of their own return to Europe. Zagorchich is keen to make them a reality. "That is our primary aim," he said.
"We are top and obviously we have a chance of the title, but it will very tough. Ludogorets are really strong, the Sofia giants CSKA and Levski are always favourites, and the two Plovdiv teams Lokomotiv and Botev are also very good. This season is going to be extremely exciting."
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