Stanimir Stoilov has twice been close to the exit door at PFC Levski Sofia but a superb UEFA Cup run has seen him delight fans of the Bulgarian club.
Back in September 2004, an unexpected UEFA Cup defeat by Belgian side KSK Beveren seemed to sound the death knell for the coach's career, but while Levski also lost to arch-rivals PFC CSKA Sofia in the 2004/05 title race, a Bulgarian Cup triumph saved Stoilov. He was back in the supporters' bad books at the start of this season as Levski went down 1-0 to Slovenia's NK Publikum in a UEFA Cup qualifier. However, a 3-0 success in the return leg marked the start of a fine European journey for Stoilov's youthful side.
Levski's subsequent away-goals defeat of French club AJ Auxerre took them into the UEFA Cup group stage, where home wins against FC Dinamo Bucuresti and Olympique de Marseille secured a last-32 meeting with Slovakian champions FC Artmedia. Last week, on a sodden pitch in Trnava, Stoilov's men earned a 1-0 advantage against the former UEFA Champions League contenders - a victory which spoke volumes for the spirit the 39-year-old trainer has imbued in his team.
"Over the last 12 months we have improved a lot mentally," he told uefa.com. "We have shown a lot of mental resilience. We have worked hard on doing exactly that. That's why I am sure the players will cope with the pressure." Much of Levski's success can be attributed to their impressive defence: Stoilov's side have yet to concede a goal at home in the UEFA Cup this term. Nonetheless, the coach believes their attacking strengths are their calling card.
"We will not change our attacking style for the return match despite our first-leg advantage," he insisted. "That's our footballing philosophy and our fans love it. Our strength is our attack and we are obliged to use it." Having played under Jozef Venglos at Fenerbahçe SK, and Ljupko Petrović and Slavoljub Muslin at Levski, Stoilov learned his craft from some masterful coaches. He is now earning a reputation of his own, prompting Levski to offer him a three-year extension.
"The board of directors are aware that the current success is thanks largely to Stoilov's hard work and that's why are going to give him a long-term deal," said Levski director and former Bulgaria star Nasko Sirakov. "Our improvement in the UEFA Cup is down to hard work and not just good luck," he added. "We have already achieved our aims with participation in the group stage, so everything else is a bonus and that's why I know there will be no pressure on our side."
'Calm and ready'
That may be true, but Stoilov is urging them on to greater things. "Our fans will expect us to get to the last 16," said the former Levski player and Bulgarian international. "We will be calm and ready."
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