By Stoyan Georgiev
There was joy unconfined at PFC Lokomotiv Plovdiv last weekend when they claimed their first Bulgarian title. PFC CSKA Sofia and PFC Litex Lovech, third and fourth in the Premier League, could only look on jealously as the biggest prize in domestic football passed them by.
Deposed champions CSKA and ambitious Litex had both started the season with high hopes - but only one will end the campaign with silverware as they meet in Wednesday's Bulgarian Cup final at the Vassil Levski stadium.
For CSKA, in particular, it has been a year to forget. Having invested for European success by signing Brazilians Leo Lima and Rodrigo Sousa, coach Stoicho Mladenov saw his team defeated in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round by Galatasaray SK and then ousted by FC Torpedo Moskva in the UEFA Cup first round.
After the latter reverse in October, the two Brazilians left - going down as perhaps the most costly mistakes in the club's history. Mladenov, who had taken the army team to the 2002/03 title, resigned soon after, with his replacement Alexander Stankov quitting in January.
Pressure on Spasov
Stankov's successor, Ferario Spasov, saw CSKA's championship challenge end in April, but he could yet emerge with some credit by winning the cup. Ironically, he is up against the side with whom he started the campaign last August.
Spasov had guided Litex to the league title in 1998/99 and the cup in 2001, before defeat by Moldovan minnows CSF Zimbru Chisinau in the UEFA Cup qualifying round marked the end of his fruitful relationship with the club.
Youngster Dragolub Simonovic filled Spasov's shoes until January, when Litex made an ambitious appointment by bringing in Serbo-Montenegrin Lupko Petrovic, the man who led FK Crvena Zvezda to the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1991.
Petrovic had previously coached PFC Levski Sofia during two spells between 1999 and 2001, winning the 2000/01 title and laying the foundations for a successful period for the club. If his team beat CSKA on Wednesday, it will complete Petrovic's set of major Bulgarian trophies.
The cup has long been Litex's priority. Bulgarian internationals Zdravko Zdravkov and Zoran Jankovic were recruited in January to help them reach the final with wins against PFC Naftex Burgas and Loko Plovdiv - although striker Jankovic has since returned to Chinese outfit Dalian Shide after his loan expired.
EURO 2004™ candidates
Jankovic added even more quality to a squad that includes three certainties for Bulgaria's UEFA EURO 2004™ campaign in goalkeeper Zdravkov and defenders Rosen Kirilov and Zlatomir Zagorcic.
CSKA, meanwhile, feature national-team stalwarts Velizar Dimitrov, Todor Yanchev and Stoyan Kolev. However, their key man in recent months has been 18-year-old Kostadion Hazurov, a signing from second division PFC Pirin Blagoevgrad who has shown star quality since making his CSKA debut.
Should the youngster fire CSKA to a 17th Bulgarian Cup success, he will save their season. However, if Litex lift the trophy for a second time, at the expense of the man who won them their first, heads may roll at the Bulgarska Armia stadium.
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