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Stoev stays calm as Basel come to town

PFC Ludogorets Razgrad coach Stoicho Stoev explains how lifting the pressure on his players set them on a winning streak they hope to continue against FC Basel 1893.

Stoicho Stoev has already made a big impression at Ludogorets Razgrad
Stoicho Stoev has already made a big impression at Ludogorets Razgrad ©Meridian Match

At the start of the summer, the UEFA Champions League was probably the last thing on Stoicho Stoev's mind. Things change quickly in football, however, and on Wednesday he will take his seat in the home dugout as Bulgaria's PFC Ludogorets Razgrad take on FC Basel 1893 in a high-profile play-off for a place in the group stage.

Stoev took over the team following the sacking of Ivaylo Petev after the opening round of the A PFG season – and, moreover, just 24 hours before the second qualifying round second leg against ŠK Slovan Bratislava in Razgrad on 24 July. Yet he made the perfect start – a 3-0 win overturning a 2-1 first-leg deficit – and since then things have just carried on getting better.

Ludogorets beat FK Partizan home and away in the next round and have posted four straight wins in their domestic league, where they sit joint top with Lyubimets 2007, the side who defeated 1-0 them on the opening day.

Stoev is a calm figure and the secret of his success appears to have been to transmit this tranquility to his new charges. "When I arrived at Ludogorets, I tried to lift the psychological pressure from the players," he told UEFA.com. "That was very important. The quality is here, the players are talented. My predecessor, Ivaylo Petev, did a great job and led the club to two league titles in a row and the cup as well.

"I couldn't do much before the return leg against Slovan but to release some of the pressure. We won 3-0, the players responded well and then it was easier – especially when you're winning."

Triumphing over Partizan in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, was anything but easy, though. For Stoev, Ludogorets' 1-0 success there, which sealed a 3-1 aggregate win, sent out a strong message about his team's character.

"[Partizan] are a great side and it is always difficult to play at their stadium with the atmosphere and the incredible support of their fans," he said. "It was a real test of our mentality, our character and spirit and the players now know what it takes to survive in such circumstances. On top of that, they know what a great feeling it is after a game like this.”

That victory set up this week's showdown with Basel. Stoev believes that, as underdogs, his team are under no pressure, especially as they know a UEFA Europa League group stage place awaits them should they fall short against the Swiss champions.

"We have nothing to lose," he says. "Last season [Basel] reached the Europa League semi-finals, so it's a great challenge to play against such a strong side. Basel look so strong, but they also have weaknesses.

"We've watched their games, we know them well and the players are aware. In football you always must stay positive and believe. Basel have great players – they will be without their captain, Marco Streller, but they have so much quality and his absence will not be noticed."

For Stoev, 51, it is a tie which stirs memories of a near miss against Swiss opponents almost 30 years ago now – in his playing prime as a stylish forward at PFC Lokomotiv Sofia. Lokomotiv met Neuchâtel Xamax in the 1985/86 UEFA Cup second round, losing narrowly on away goals after two draws.

"That was a great Xamax side with several Swiss internationals and the great German international Uli Stielike," he recalled. "We were the better team in Sofia, but it ended 1-1 and then we drew 0-0 at their place. So I know it will be more than difficult as Swiss sides are always tough and well-organised."

As a player he worked under some famous Lokomotiv coaches like Apostol Chachevsk, Todor Velev and Georgi Berkov, yet his biggest influence is Arrigo Sacchi. "He showed how the modern game should be played," he said of the Italian who led AC Milan to European titles in 1989 and '90.

Now Stoev has his own opportunity to make his mark in the UEFA Champions League. "So far I've coached teams like Minior Pernik and Montana, who had to fight for survival. We had to fight in every game. It is the same again at Ludogorets in terms of fighting to win every match." Basel beware.

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