A plum tie against the holders Liverpool FC awaits if PFC CSKA Sofia can see off KF Tirana's challenge.
By Stoyan Georgiev
As they picked up the Bulgarian title in May, PFC CSKA Sofia received the trophy with shirts bearing three stars to symbolise their 30 league successes.
However, when it comes to successes in Europe's top competition, CSKA have had less to celebrate in the 57 years since their formation. Despite three previous attempts in 1992, 1997 and 2003, they are yet to get to the group stages of the UEFA Champions League.
A 2-0 win against KF Tirana in Albania last week saw the Reds of CSKA edge close to a third qualifying round tie against the Reds of Liverpool FC. "One thing is certain," joked CSKA's Serbo-Montenegrin coach Miodrag Jesic. "The Reds will go through."
However, there will be no room for jokes on the field if CSKA do win their way through. Jesic is only too aware that if his side are to overcome the holders to earn a place in this season's Champions League group stage, he may well need some kind of divine intervention.
Jesic has been frugal in the transfer market this summer. With the combative Todor Yanchev and French midfield player Benoît Cauet both leaving, his main reinforcement has been Moroccan international Mourad Hidiouad from PFC Litex Lovech.
He has also brought in his compatriot Slavko Matic, who was playing league football in Iran last season, and Croatian Matija Matko from Bosnia-Herzegovnian club NK Celik. Meanwhile, speedy winger Petar Dimitrov has come to the club along with Ivorian striker Guillaume Zadi.
In addition, fans' favourite Stoyko Sakaliev is back at CSKA after concluding a transfer dispute with his old club PFC Naftex Burgas, and as they build from the basis of a fine goalkeeper in Moldovan Eugen Hmaruc, the Army team have managed to fashion a decent side.
Bulgarian international Valentin Iliev and Senegalese Ibrahima Gueye may be a little accident-prone at the heart of defence, but speedy full-backs Radoslav Zábavník and Brazilian Tiago Silva have both proved adept in getting forward to support CSKA's strongest line, the midfield.
With team captain Emil Gargarov and Hidiouad pulling the strings, Jesic can bank on a number of talented options, with the right-sided Yordan Todorov also capable of playing as a holding midfield player. Hristo Yanev, and the injured Velizar Dimitrov, who could return to play Liverpool, complete a strong lineup.
With five men in midfield, Sakaliev tends to play as a lone striker, but Yanev and Gargorov are more than capable of providing support from midfield. Liverpool would be red-hot favourites if they do meet CSKA in their next European tie, but Rafael Benítez men should not expect an easy ride, especially in Sofia.
CSKA have made a habit of dethroning European champions, having knocked out all-conquering AFC Ajax in 1973/74 and Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest FC in 1980/81. Two rounds after that win, they received a 6-1 aggregate pummelling from Liverpool, but got their revenge the following season as they dumped Bob Paisley's side out of the quarter-finals with a 2-0 win in Sofia.
'Right to hope'
Some 23 years on, the odds may seem stacked in Liverpool's favour, but as Jesic said: "We have the right to hope." Stoycho Mladenov who scored both goals in that famous win added: "In 1982 nobody expected our win against Liverpool. CSKA have a habit of rising to the occasion. If the players believe in their abilities, anything can happen."