Defender Elin Topuzakov says PFC Levski Sofia have their "best ever chance" of reaching the UEFA Champions League group stage as they face AC Chievo Verona.
The Levski captain may not yet belong to the pantheon of legends like Georgi Asparuhov, Nasko Sirakov and Bozhidar Iskrenov, but few will doubt the consistency that has made him the first Levski player to record 50 European appearances for the club following the second qualifying round tie against Georgia's FC Sioni Bolnisi. Topuzakov's continental debut came as a substitute in a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup game at Belarussian side FC Lokomotiv Vitebsk in 1998. The boy from Haskovo had little idea then that he would end up playing the likes of Juventus, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Olympique de Marseille.
"I remember my first European match against Lokomotiv Vitebsk - I played as a defensive midfielder," the 29-year-old told uefa.com. "I cannot forget any of those 50 European games, but the most memorable are the UEFA Cup matches against Zinédine Zidane and Juventus in 1999 and against Liverpool in 2004." All that experience, gleaned under the likes of 1991 European Champion Clubs' Cup winner Ljupko Petrović, Slavoljub Muslin and Vladimir Fedotov, will serve Topuzakov well as he and current coach Stanimir Stoilov look to secure Levski - and Bulgaria's - first group-stage qualification.
UEFA Cup joy
"Last season we reached the UEFA Cup quarter-finals and played some really good football," he said. "The mood is excellent and our expectations are high. Chievo might be a Serie A side, but they are not Juventus, [FC] Internazionale [Milano] or AC Milan and we have a chance. They are an excellent team, but they do not have superstars." Levski took the scalp of Chievo's rivals Udinese Calcio last term, although Topuzakov refuses to read too much into that success. "This is a completely different story because it is about a place in the UEFA Champions League proper," he said. "One thing is sure: Chievo will be much more motivated than Udinese."
Nor will the Bulgarians lack motivation. Topuzakov has missed out on the group stage on three occasions - against Beşiktaş JK in 2000/01, Galatasaray SK in 2001/02 and FC Dynamo Kyiv in 2002/03 - and is determined to make it fourth time lucky. "We have our best ever chance," said Topuzakov, who should shake off an ankle injury to play. "In those three defeats, we were under enormous pressure and were not confident enough. Last season's success in Europe has given us a lot of belief and that is very important at this stage of the competition."
Still to score in Europe, Topuzakov would happily forgo a goal provided Levski progress after the return leg in Italy on 23 August. "I'd be happy to play 100 games without scoring as long as the team is winning," he said. "I have come close on several occasions but that is not important when Levski are doing well."
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