As Kazakh debutants Astana prepare to make their first foray into the group stage, their coach Stanimir Stoilov looks back at his most memorable nights in Europe.
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Former Bulgaria coach Stanimir Stoilov returns to the UEFA Champions league this week, the competition where he forged his reputation before taking the national-team job. In 2006, he made history in charge of Levski Sofia as the Blues became the first Bulgarian side to reach the tournament's group stage.
Nine years on, Stoilov has repeated the feat by guiding Astana – the first Kazakh side to win a UEFA play-off tie – to the competition proper. The Blue-and-Yellows' maiden foray into the group stage begins with an away tie at two-time winners Benfica on Tuesday, followed by fixtures against experienced European campaigners Galatasaray and Atlético Madrid.
Looking back at his achievements in the game, the experienced tactician relived his top five European jousts for UEFA.com.
Levski Sofia 1-0 Auxerre (29 September 2005, UEFA Cup first round, second leg)
The game that changed the European fortunes of Levski under Stoilov. Having lost the first leg in France 2-1, the Blues rallied in the return against a strong side featuring Bacary Sagna and Abou Diaby.
Inspired by new signing Cédric Bardon, the Bulgarian outfit claimed a narrow home success thanks to an effort from distance by Milan Koprivarov. Despite eight nervy minutes of added time, the hosts held on to reach the group stage of the UEFA Cup. That glorious night was the birth of the great Levski side that went on to reach the quarter-finals and graced the UEFA Champions League group stage a year later.
"We showed great character and stamina [to progress]. That's what I wanted to see from the players – commitment and skill," explained Stoilov.
Levski Sofia 2-1 Udinese (16 March 2006, UEFA Cup round of 16, second leg)
Following a goalless stalemate in Italy, the Blues claimed a comeback success in Bulgaria after the visitors broke the deadlock midway through the first half. Second-half strikes from club legend Daniel Borimirov and Igor Tomašić gave the fans a night to remember.
"It's not easy to win against a strong Serie A side after conceding first," recalled Stoilov. "At half-time I told the players: 'The game is lost as things stand; all you can do now is win it.' Our confidence grew with each match in the UEFA Cup that season. The whole club was buzzing."
Chievo 2-2 Levski Sofia (23 August 2006, UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, second leg)
Dimitar Telkiyksi and Bardon found the target as Levski became the first Bulgarian side to qualify for the group stage after a draw at the Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi completed a 4-2 aggregate win. The Italian side stirred back into life after going 2-0 down thanks to a double from Amauri, but the night belonged to the Blues.
"It was a difficult choice between this game and the first leg, which we won 2-0 – a moment I will never forget. We were really confident during both games. The welcome we got on our return to Sofia [following the second leg] from our fans was incredible," Stoilov said.
Astana 4-3 HJK (5 August 2015, UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, second leg)
Evgeni Postnikov struck a last-gasp clincher as ten-man Astana came back from 2-0 down before withstanding a late barrage from the Finnish outfit to edge a seven-goal thriller and reach the play-offs.
"The roar in the stadium at the final whistle said it all. In the first half we were trailing 2-0 despite playing well, and I couldn't believe it. Then, in the final ten minutes, there was so much drama – goals, a red card for us and a penalty for HJK. Thank God we won it! That game changed everything."
Astana 1-0 APOEL (18 August 2015, UEFA Champions League, play-offs, first leg)
Baurzhan Dzholchiyev's brilliant 14th-minute header secured a narrow first-leg advantage against the Cypriot side – a result which took the Kazakh title holders within 90 minutes of their historic breakthrough.
"We knew the only way we could overcome such strong opponents was to reproduce our superb domestic form – we were composed and solid at the back. Of course, the second leg was very difficult too, but this victory gave us the necessary confidence [to advance]."