Bulgarian champions PFC Ludogorets Razgrad raised eyebrows across the continent two weeks ago when they opened UEFA Europa League Group B with a 2-0 win at PSV Eindhoven.
Starring, not for the first time, in Ludogorets' success was goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov. The 26-year-old arrived at Ludogorets at the start of the year after an impressive spell with Moldova's FC Sheriff and helped them through two UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds this summer before a play-off loss to FC Basel 1893 transferred them to this competition. UEFA Europa League debutants, Ludogorets host GNK Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday, familiar opponents for both the club and their keeper.
In a 2010/11 UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie, Stoyanov's penalty shoot-out heroics aided Sheriff to a surprise triumph at Stadion Maksimir, only for Dinamo to take revenge at the same stage last season – 5-0 on aggregate – having earlier knocked out Ludogorets. "Yes, I know a lot about Dinamo, no doubt about it," Stoyanov told UEFA.com. "I've met them four times already and it is almost like a domestic league game for me!
"They are a very strong side. They have won the Croatian league so many times recently, and always play in the group stage of the European competitions. Dinamo have lots of excellent players and everybody knows who they are. There are new faces in the side too, but I am sure they are also quality players. It will be difficult. They lost their first game against Chornomorets Odesa [2-1 at home] and will try to bounce back. One thing is certain, this game is vital for both teams."
Stoyanov will hope for a happy ending at the Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski to rival that of 2010: Sheriff and Dinamo Zagreb finished 2-2 on aggregate before the Moldovan outfit prevailed 6-5 on spot kicks. "It was a great moment for me," the Bulgarian international said. "The shoot-out took 16 penalties, but before that Sammir had scored from the spot for them to send the tie to extra time. We were under tremendous pressure, I made some good stops.
"The shoot-out drama was unbelievable. I saved three attempts, including from Sammir. I also missed one myself. Then Dinamo's last conversion hit the post, while we scored ours. A game I will never forget! Two years later we met Dinamo again and it was a different story. We were weaker, they were stronger and defeated us."
Now he thinks Ludogorets are capable of prospering in this competition and building on their eye-catching scalp of PSV. "Dinamo have great players like Sammir, Junior Fernándes and El Arbi Hilal," Stoyanov said. "If they are are in the mood and in top form, they are capable of causing big problems. We should focus on the game and not on the past. I was not in the side beaten by them last season, but everyone at the club remembers it.
"We did well against PSV, we played well and we achieved a fantastic result. That gives us great confidence. Now there might be some pressure on us, but we are in good shame, the atmosphere is great in the squad. We have a chance and we will try to take it."