Coach Lyuboslav Penev has injected new optimism into Bulgaria's most popular side, with PFC CSKA Sofia's hungry local players itching for action against Fulham FC in their Group E opener.
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Coach Lyuboslav Penev has injected a new sense of optimism into Bulgaria's most popular side, with PFC CSKA Sofia's hungry local players itching for action against Fulham FC in their Group E opener.
'Character and desire'
Having failed to fulfil the licensing criteria last season, CSKA were unable to compete in Europe despite winning the Bulgarian title. Twelve months on, their play-off victory over FC Dinamo Moskva represented the club's first-ever Russian scalp and earned the chance to embark on a fresh challenge in the UEFA Europa League. "We played very well and won against very strong opposition," said the 43-year-old Penev. "We showed character and will to win, and I am proud of the boys. This is the team I want to see in every game."
An important factor in CSKA's latest success story is the role of Bulgarian-born players, a change from the Army Men's recent policy. During the summer, CSKA's only signings were local: rising star Spas Delev from PFC Pirin Blagoevgrad, Todor Timonov and Nikolay Manchev from PFC Botev Plovdiv, and the FC Sliven quartet of Ivan Stoyanov, Kosta Yanev, Kostadin Stoyanov and Zdravko Chavdarov. Delev, Ivan Stoyanov and Timonov, in particular, have been instant hits.
Such reliance on Bulgarian talent is a reminder of the teams of ten and 20 years ago. Compelled to count on younger players, the CSKA of the late 1980s featured Emil Kostadinov, the great Hristo Stoitchkov and Penev himself – a striker who shone brightest at Valencia CF. Ten years back, financial problems forced CSKA to look to their own junior ranks, with Dimitar Berbatov, Stiliyan Petrov and Martin Petrov seizing the moment and developing into leading men.
The UEFA Europa League could give the likes of Ivan Stoyanov and Delev the opportunity to launch similarly stellar careers, though Penev knows the Group E draw has been less than kind to his side. "Roma are favourites but Basel and Fulham are also very strong," he said. "It is a really tough group. We should watch them closely and be ready for them. It will not be easy for us."
'I expect the best'
Penev – who replaced his uncle, veteran coach Dimitar Penev, at the CSKA helm in March – has had his doubters. While his tenure began with ten straight wins, losses to arch-rivals PFC Levski Sofia and PFC Litex Lovech in the closing stages of last term cost CSKA the championship. Beating Dinamo, however, has enhanced his reputation and given him hope for Europe. "I know what we are capable of," he said. "I am an optimist and expect the best from our players."