By Jonathan Wilson
When Blackburn Rovers FC take on PFC CSKA Sofia in the Bulgarska Armia stadium on Thursday, two old rivals will go head to head in the third chapter of a personal duel stretching back more than 20 years.
In the 1981 European Champion Clubs' Cup quarter-final, Graeme Souness, now the Blackburn manager, hit a magnificent hat-trick for Liverpool FC in a 5-1 dismantling of CSKA at Anfield. The Merseysiders ran out 6-1 aggregate winners on their way to winning their third European Cup but a year later, when the sides met again at the same stage, there was a different outcome.
Mladenov joins greats
This time Liverpool could only manage a 1-0 win on home soil, leaving the tie finely poised for the second leg in Sofia. There, in front of 70,00 fans on a cold March night in the Vasil Levski stadium, Stoycho Mladenov, now their coach, ascended into the pantheon of CSKA greats.
Captained by Georgi Dimitrov, this was arguably the finest hour for the greatest side in CSKA's history. Liverpool looked to be holding out until, with 12 minutes remaining, Metodi Tomanov crossed from the left and Mladenov headed the game into extra-time. Just before the midway point of the extra period, Mladenov added the second, twisting on the ground to scoop the ball home. Liverpool piled forward, but could find no way past goalkeeper Georgi Velinov and it was CSKA who progressed to the semi-final against FC Bayern München.
'I believe we will win'
Ninety minutes into Souness and Mladenov's third meeting, it is the Bulgarian who has the upper hand after his CSKA side, maintaining their impressive form this season, earned a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park. Despite seven wins in seven league games so far this campaign, however, Mladenov is taking nothing for granted. "A 1-1 draw away is not a bad result, especially against a strong English side, but I am sure that anything could happen in the return," he said. "I would also say, though, that I believe we will win the tie. If you do not believe that, there is no point playing these games."
CSKA will again look to striker Velizar Dimitrov, who has signalled his return to form this season with six goals in eight games, including the opener at Blackburn a fortnight ago. By contrast, Blackburn have struggled for goals and will hardly be helped by a recurrence of Dwight Yorke's hamstring injury, sustained in Monday's 2-0 win at West Bromwich Albion FC and a "major blow" according to Souness.
Blackburn captain Garry Flitcroft is also out with a shoulder injury, but CSKA's only absentee is Alexander Tomash Tomovski, suspended after his dismissal in the first leg and likely to be replaced by the Brazilian João Carlos. "I am sure our players will give their best against some of the greatest players in the world," Mladenov added. "But our great advantage is our fans. We need them, and I'm sure their help will make things easier for us."
There will not be 70,000 in the Bulgarska Armia on Thursday, but those that are there could see CSKA's greatest result in two decades - and, with it, another victory for Mladenov over Souness.
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