The Rovers team ahead of the meeting with Hibernians last week. Darrin Zammit Lupi/INPHO
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Preview: Shamrock Rovers head to Bulgaria for daunting Champions League task

The Hoops face Ludogorets in the first leg of their Champions League second qualifying round tonight.

SHAMROCK ROVERS WOULD comfortably take their place among the year’s greatest Irish sporting achievements were they to qualify for the next qualifying round of the Champions League, with Ludogorets of Bulgaria standing in their way tonight. 

Rovers qualified by beating Hibernians of Malta over two legs – they did the work at Tallaght, winning 3-0 before happily playing out a dreary goalless draw in the return leg – and any difficulties in qualifying were added to by those simply getting there. With no charter flight available, Rovers travelled to Razgrad in the country’s northeast in separate groups. Some went direct, others caught connections. Ludogorets won’t have such problems getting to the return leg in Tallaght next Tuesday. 

“It helps if you can travel direct and we haven’t been able to”, admitted manager Stephen Bradley. “But it’s done, there’s nothing we can do about it now, it’s definitely an advantage.” 

Rovers have their own advantage of a couple of safety nets beneath this tie: they are guaranteed another two European ties regardless of this outcome, first in the qualifiers of the Europa League and then the Conference League.

Improbable qualification against Ludogorets would guarantee them a place in the Conference League group phase at worse, which would bring with it a minimum €3.3 million. 

“We are not just here to experience things, we want to qualify”, said captain Ronan Finn. “We are not looking at anything beyond this round.” 

They are looking squarely at a serious opponent playing out of an incongruously small place. Ludogorets are based in Razgrad in the north-east of the country, a town with a population of around 46,000 people, roughly the same as Longford.

And yet their stranglehold on Bulgarian football is suffocating. They have won the past 11 Bulgarian league titles, while becoming the first Bulgarian club to qualify for the Champions League group stages, following it up by being the first Bulgarian side to pick up a point and then a victory in the competition. (They first qualified in 2014, drawing 2-2 at home to Liverpool.) 

Ludogorets were first promoted to the top flight in 2011 and not only did they win the first title they competed for after promotion to the top flight, they’ve won every title they’ve competed for since promotion to the top flight. In fact, they have spent more seasons of their history as Bulgarian champions than not, a stat admittedly diluted by the fact they have existed only since 2001. 

The ’1945′ in their title is a trick of reverse-engineered history: in 2006 the original club of Razgrad – founded in 1945 – dissolved, and Ludogorets nabbed their licence.  Their monopoly on Bulgarian football springs from the well of all modern football fairytales: money. Bulgarian businessmen Kiril Domuschiev has made a fortune in the pharmaceutical business – Forbes estimate his worth at more than $4 billion – and he has invested a chunk of it in Ludogorets, first taking over the club in 2010.

They often recruit from South America – usually Brazil – and their backing means they are not total hostages to the market. Cicinho, a full-back signed from Santos, arrived in 2015 and hasn’t left, to the point he has qualified to play for Bulgaria. (He made an appearance in the 0-0 Nations League draw against Ireland in Dublin back in 2020.) 

cicinho-and-jason-knight Cicinho with Jason Knight at the Aviva Stadium in 2020. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Among their most promising players is 21-year-old Brazilian striker Igor Thiago, whose name neatly captures the melding of Bulgarian and South American talent that is the bedrock of their team. 

Midfielder Alex Santana, playmaker Cauly, and wide-attacker Rick are all Brazilian, while striker Matias Tissera is from Argentina. There are Bulgarian international dotted through the team too, including full-back Anton Nedyalkov and forward Spas Delev – both of whom played against Ireland in the 2020 Nations League – and young playmaker Dominik Yankov, who was born in Canada and spent time in the Sunderland academy before his parents settled back in Bulgaria. 

And just to further accentuate the task facing Rovers tonight, these are not the only internationals in the squad. Goalkeeper Simon Sluga has played thrice for Croatia, midfielder Manuel Cafumana (nicknamed Show) has played 21 times for Angola, wide attacker Bernard Tekpetey represented Ghana at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations and first-choice striker Pieros Sotiriou has been capped almost 50 times by Cyprus. 

Slovenian coach Ante Simundza has pedigree too. He took Mura to the Champions League group phase in the same year as Ludogorets made their breakthrough, knocking out Celtic in the play-off round. He plays a 4-2-3-1, though rested first-choice players for the first-round qualifying win against Sutjeska of Montenegro to retain his strongest hand for the league, which is already two rounds in. But even a rotated Ludogorets team will be a huge challenge for Rovers. 

Rovers, happily, are at full strength. Jack Byrne played his first football in six weeks off the bench in Malta, while Graham Burke and Neil Farrugia are fit again, too. Andy Lyons is available as well, in spite of reports linking him with a transfer to Blackpool. Bradley batted away a question about him at the pre-match press conference. 

Both Bradley and Finn sat at that press conference with shaved heads, and a few other Rovers players will be sporting the same look on the pitch tomorrow night. It’s part of Bradley’s family’s fundraiser for children’s hospitals and charities. Bradley’s eight-year-old son Josh has been diagnosed with leukemia, and a fundraiser launched last week has raised almost €70,000. (You can donate here.) 

“It’s something very close to Stephen’s family and is now part of our campaign”, said Finn. “We want to bring success for Stephen’s family and this is just a small thing. If it puts a smile on Josh’s face, we’ll be delighted.”

 Finn is set to make his 50th appearance in Europe, and is closing in on Gary Rogers’ League of Ireland record of 54. He is around long enough to know there’s no market for moral victories. 

“That part of it annoys me a bit – the moral victories. I’ve experienced enough of it where you do well, put on a good performance but fall. It’s something we’re trying to change. The manager is building a group to be more than that, to succeed in the challenge. I feel we’re coming to a stage where we’ve the squad to compete at the highest level, to play in the top games. Tomorrow will be a challenge.

“Over the years, I’ve played in the games that we’ve got turned over. We need to get away from that as a league. We’re doing that in this club. We’ve set our stall out by setting targets within the group and [tonight] is part of it.” 

Tonight would be quite the night for Rovers to make his point. 

Ludogorets (Possible XI): Sluga; Cicinho, Plastun, Verdon, Nedyalkov; Show, Santana; Tekpetey, Cauly, Despodov; Sotiriou

Shamrock Rovers (Possible XI): Mannus; Hoare, Lopes, Grace; Finn; McCann, O’Neill; Lyons; Watts, Greene; Gaffney

 On TV: RTE Two; KO: 6.45pm 

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