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When Liverpool FC arrive in Sofia for their UEFA Champions League match against PFC Ludogorets Razgrad on Wednesday, the occasion will evoke memories of Bulgaria's finest European Cup moment. Thirty-two years ago, PFC CSKA Sofia came agonisingly close to becoming the first European champions from eastern Europe – an honour subsequently earned by Romania's FC Steaua Bucureşti in 1986.
The winter of 1982 had been typically harsh in Bulgaria, with snow blanketing the country's capital for several weeks, and 17 March was no different. While it was cold and icy in the city's streets, there was plenty of heat being generated at the Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski. The snow had been cleared from the pitch and piled on the adjacent athletics track, and more than 60,000 fans filled the stadium anticipating a memorable night against title holders Liverpool.
The odds were against Bulgaria's leading side of the day. Exactly a year before, the English club had demolished CSKA at the same quarter-final stage, 6-1 on aggregate, before going on to win the final 1-0 in Paris against Real Madrid CF. But this time would be different. CSKA had put in a brave performance at Anfield, surviving a siege and only losing 1-0 to Ronnie Whelan's 65th-minute strike.
"We were really a very strong side," Stoitcho Mladenov, two-goal hero of the return leg against Liverpool and current coach of CSKA, told Champions Matchday. "All my team-mates were great and we knew we were capable of making a breakthrough. In the first round we defeated Real Sociedad, who won the Spanish title leaving behind Real Madrid and Barcelona. Against Liverpool we knew only a good result at Anfield in the first leg would leave us a chance for the return. We gave our best, we showed tremendous character and lost 1-0. But that performance gave us the platform, the confidence and the belief that we could go through."
The Liverpool squad from that memorable night in Sofia needs little introduction. Led by Bob Paisley, and with names such as Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Graeme Souness, Mark Lawrenson, Alan Kennedy and Bruce Grobbelaar, the visitors were a force to be reckoned with. From kick-off they tried to show they were still the masters of European football. CSKA had keeper Georgi Velinov to thank for still being in the game at half-time. After the break, the Army Men gradually took control and waited for their opportunity. It came in the 77th minute. Left-back Metodi Tomanov crossed, Grobbelaar misjudged the flight of the ball and it dropped for Mladenov to head home.
"The first half was a great battle. Liverpool showed why they were reigning European champions, but our defence stood tall, with goalkeeper Velinov also at his best. But we knew very well we needed to be patient and wait," Mladenov said. "
You cannot just go and score against Liverpool. Unless you give 100% effort, unless you have the heart and the quality, you have no chance. Yes, my first goal came rather late, but we never stopped believing we could score. I saw the high ball, was left unmarked and headed in. In football, on such big occasions, you must take your chance. You cannot expect to have many against a side of Liverpool's status. The goal really boosted us – we sensed we could go all the way."
The stage was set for the greatest moment in CSKA's history. At 1-1 on aggregate, the tie went into extra time. In the 101st minute, Tsvetan Yonchev took a quick corner to substitute Nikola Velkov who crossed from the right. Liverpool's yellow-shirted defenders failed to clear the danger and Mladenov, lying on the ground, somehow managed to score what turned out to be the winner. Minutes later, Liverpool centre-back Lawrenson was sent off and CSKA clung on to their lead.
"The second goal was difficult to execute," says Mladenov. "Spas Dzhevizov jumped for the high ball, but it somehow dropped down on the ground and I stretched for it. I managed to connect well and scored. That's a feeling I will never forget. How could I? Scoring a winner against the reigning European champions, the mighty Liverpool, is really something special.
They gave their best, we gave our best. That is what football is all about – such glorious nights."
In the semi-final a month later, CSKA met FC Bayern München and after a scarcely believable first 18 minutes in Sofia the Reds led 3-0. Bayern rallied, though, and the match ended 4-3 to the Bulgarian side, though the return leg was lost 4-0. In the final, Aston Villa FC edged the German champions 1-0; Mladenov thinks the Army Men could have marched all the way to the title.
"If we had reached the final, I am sure we could have lifted the trophy," said the now 57-year-old. "We learned how to play against English sides. Against Bayern we probably lacked the necessary confidence. I don't think the three early goals were actually bad for us, but Bayern were a world-class side, they did not lose their confidence or composure and achieved what they needed. Of course, we will always regret that missed chance. We were a strong side, a side capable of winning a lot. But to reach the holy grail a club like ours needs some luck, a little more confidence and self-belief."
CSKA's success in 1981/82 brought recognition off the field as well as on it. In the 1980s, CSKA were still overseen by Bulgaria's ministry of defence and every player had a military rank. Mladenov, for example, went into the game a lieutenant. "The defence minister came into the dressing room to congratulate us," said the goalscoring hero. "He said to me: 'Excellent, captain Mladenov.' I immediately answered: 'I'm a lieutenant', but he looked into my eyes and said: 'You're already a captain.' My memories from the game will always be bright – I have the recording at home; I kept my shirt.
Playing and winning against Dalglish, Rush and Souness is the greatest moment in my career."
As Liverpool again travel to Sofia on matchday five, the players of Ludogorets will be hoping to build similar memories.
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the latest issue of Champions Matchday, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League. Champions Matchday is available in print and in digital format. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.
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