Espanyol’s long-awaited European adventure continues this evening, despite having been somewhat overshadowed by the club’s recent toils in La Liga. Talk of prioritising the Levante match on Sunday is not only depressing but also wide of the mark. Of course, Pablo Machín must use his squad wisely, but that implies finding the correct balance to maximise the performance levels over all the matches, rather than simply sacrificing one game in order to supposedly boost your chances of winning the next. In any case, would anyone feel confident that a “first-choice” Espanyol XI is going to steamroller Levante into submission on current form?
The Bulgarian champions are flying domestically and in Europe, and are unbeaten in all competitions since mid-July. Curiously, that last defeat was against Ferencváros in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League. The Hungarians were subsequently themselves eliminated and fate has thrown them together in the Europa League group stages. The fact that Ludogorets came away from Budapest with a resounding 3-0 win in their last continental outing, despite playing over half the match with ten men, suggests that those lethargic performances in the summer were not indicative of this team’s ability.
Then again, Ludogorets are always flying domestically. The club was refounded in 2001, but their rise to domination didn’t begin until 2010, when they were purchased by oligarch Kiril Domuschiev. They won promotion to the top flight the very same year, and since then they have won every single league title. Yep, they make the Scottish Premier League look interesting. All this in spite of the fact that they hail from Razgrad, a small town of 30,000 inhabitants. We are willing to bet that Razgrad also has the highest ratio of Brazilians per capita in Bulgaria, as several of Domuschiev’s best sporting investments have been South American imports. Obviously, these guys are living legends at the club, as they have competed in the Champions League group stage twice and are now regulars on the Europa League circuit. Attacking maestros Marcelinho and Wanderson are naturalised Bulgarians and have made a handful of appearances for the national team, although both are in their thirties now.
Coach Stanislav Genchev is a former Bulgarian international who was appointed in August after the club’s failure to qualify for the Champions League group stages. He is unbeaten so far and has continued with Ludogorets attacking 4-2-3-1 formation.
Centre-back Grigore is suspended after his red card against Ferencváros, while midfielder Goralski and star striker Claudiu Keseru have been ruled out through injury. The absence of Keseru, who scored a hat-trick against CSKA Moscow and played for Romania against Spain last month, is a huge blow. Elsewhere the lineup is fairly settled. Have a look at the full squad on Transfermarkt.
Moment of Glory
The biggest of all club legends will likely take his place on the bench tonight, but his name is also enshrined in one of the stands thanks to his heroics which took Ludogorets into the Champions League group stages for the first time in 2014. It looked as if Steaua Bucharest would progress by the narrowest of margins as the clock ticked into stoppage time in the second leg and Ludogrets still trailed to a solitary strike a week earlier in Romania, when Wanderson’s nonchalant swipe changed the course of the tie and sent the match into extra time. The stadium was silenced once more, however, in the last minute of the tiebreaker, when home goalkeeper Stoyanov came charging out and could only take down the onrushing forward to earn himself a red card. All available substitutions had been made, and so it fell to Cosmin Moti, a centre-back recently arrived from Steau’s arch-rivals Dinamo Bucharest, to don the gloves.
If the fans were fearful, Moti soothed thier worries by stepping up himself to lash home the first penalty of the shootout, before going on to cement his place in club folklore.
Espanyol team news
Víctor Gómez, Adrià Pedrosa and Calero have all (apparently) picked up minor knocks, while David López is rested. This means that it will be a new-look back line, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Naldo starting on the bench as well.
Marc Roca surely can’t play every game, and this seems like a good opportunity to let Pol Lozano fill this crucial role, while Iturraspe is back in contention for the role of accomplice.
Ludogorets will try to control the match and so Wu Lei’s pace will be vital on the counter, with Ferreyra the number one candidate to start scoring the goals that the blanc-i-blau so desperately need. Òscar Melendo hasn’t started a game since September, but there’s no time like the present to ease the creative burden on Matías Vargas.
Espanyol hopefully won’t give up the same number of chances as CSKA Moscow and Ferencváros did, but the potent Ludogorets attack combined with current form makes the home side favourite here. They won’t be overawed either, having hosted PSG, Liverpool and Real Madrid and Valencia in recent years. They have lost all of these matches against Spanish opposition, but will be eager to put that right tonight.
It sounds like a good opportunity for Pablo Machín to make a statement of intent, doesn’t it? ¡Vamos Espanyol!