When Bulgarian titleholders PFC Litex Lovech begin their UEFA Champions League campaign against Montengro's FK Rudar Pljevlja in the second qualifying round first leg on Tuesday, the performances of their two French players will be central to their chances of making a breakthrough in Europe's premier club competition.
Striker Wilfried Niflore and defender Alexandre Barthe joined Litex in 2008 and have gradually emerged as influential players for a club which is making its third foray into the tournament. Having overcome a difficult settling in period upon arriving in Bulgaria midway through the 2007/08 season from FC Gueugnon, Niflore has not looked back.
His first full campaign ended with him scoring the opener in a 3-0 defeat of PFC Pirin Blagoevgrad in the Bulgarian Cup final. Last term the former Toulouse FC and AS Cannes forward finished as the A League's leading scorer with 19 goals, including two in a victory at PFC Lokomotiv Plovdiv in early May which secured his side the title.
Niflore told UEFA.com: "
One of the reasons for coming here was to fulfill my dream of playing in European competition because I didn't have such a chance in France. Half of my target has been reached. I played and scored against Aston Villa at Villa Park in the UEFA Cup in the autumn of 2008. Now we are looking forward to taking part in the UEFA Champions League and we hope to go as far as possible."
Though Litex had to wait until 1997 to make their top-flight bow, the club have certainly made up for lost time, winning the Bulgarian Cup four times and the title in successive seasons between 1998 and 1999. Niflore, with his haul of 19 goals, is the third Litex player to top the scoring charts in that time after Dimcho Belyakov in 1999 and Milivoje Novakovič seven years later.
"It's not easy to score so many goals without the help of my team mates," said Niflore. "Football is a team game and without the others it's impossible to be successful. Of course, I am happy to be top scorer but credit is due to the whole team."
While Niflore takes the plaudits for his goals, his compatriot, Barthe, is creating headlines of his own in the heart of Litex's defence. The 24-year-old was considered one of his country's brightest defensive prospects in his youth days, featuring alongside now senior internationals Hugo Lloris and Yoann Gourcuff as France qualified for – and won – the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in 2005, though Barthe missed out on the finals in Northern Ireland because of injury.
I've won the league and the cup in Bulgaria; it's nice to lift trophies," said Barthe, who joined from French third-tier outfit Rodez AF following a spell at AS Saint-Etienne. "Obviously the aim is to perform as good as possible in the UEFA Champions League. It will not be easy against Rudar. We should not underestimate the opposition and we must give out best against them."
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