Saturday, April 7, 2012

By the 1/8 finals the small fry was largely eliminated, and as progressing further, the tournament was shaken by fewer and fewer surprises. But there was one unexpected and unusually long run of unlikely club – Levski-Spartak (Sofia). The club had some problems, especially in defense, but it was really its tradition making it unlikely candidate for reaching higher stages: Levski, as a rule, underperformed in the European tournaments. The first opponent was no trouble – Eskisehirspor (Turkey). The ‘Blues’ won confidently 3-0 and 4-1, but they did not look particularly strong.
Levski scores the first goal against the Turks in Sofia.
The second round looked like the end of Levski - they were paired with MSV Duisburg at the 1/16 finals. The ‘Zebras’ were hardly great and unbeatable, but were West German team… and there was little doubt who will go ahead even among Levski’s fans. The first match was lost 2-3, but although Levski fought well and even managed to lead twice, pessimism dominated. Levski got new kit when in Duisburg and this was most likely their gain from playing in the UEFA Cup.
The home game supported the pessismists for a long time – with some injured players, Levski was unable to score against well organized Germans. Finally, in the 50th minute, the central defender and captain Kiril Ivkov, who rarely crossed the midfiled line, scored with a header. It was more an act of frustration and desperation, then a result of dominance….
Ivkov scores the opening goal, giving shaky lead to Levski.
Duisburg equalized 9 minutes later. Levski continued to attack, but the match appeared decided already. Luckily, a penalty was given in the 81st minute, which Pavel Panov, less efficient in Sofia, then in Duisburg, converted into goal. Levski was clearly lucky to advance.
And it was clear that the 1/8 finals were to be the end of the road: Levski was meeting Ajax (Amsterdam). It was not the mighty Ajax, surely – only Hulshof (by now playing in midfield, not defense), Krol, Suurbier, and Gerrie Muhren remained from the old squad, but Rinus Michels was again at the helm and Geels and Schrijvers were dangerous newer additions. The first leg, in Amsterdam, fulfilled the expectations – in the first half, Levski did not have a single shot towards Schrijvers. Ajax, although not great, was in control – Geels opened the result in the 34th minute and the second half continued the same way. Steffenhagen doubled the lead in the 75th minute, game over… third goal was brewing… and then a rare counterattack happened, a brief mellee in front of Schrijvers, and Voin Voinov scored in the 85th minute. Ajax was so surprised and shaken by the goal, they lost rhythm and were unable to do damage in the last five minutes. The hosts won, but were in shock – suddenly the second leg was a problem. Meantime Levski built confidence: suddenly the devil was not all that scary.
There was something curious novelty about Levski too - Nikolay Grancharov was fielded as right full back. There was some problems with his summer transfer from Cherno more (Varna) and he had no rights to play in the Bulgarian league – but had rights to play international football. In the next years this predecent was to loom large – a whole bunch of Bulgarian players playing for the national team and European club tournaments, but not for their clubs in the regular domestic championship. However, fielding Grancharov was big risk – he did not play a single official match in 6 months.
A moment of the first leg in Amsterdam: Kiril Milanov (#9) gives trouble to Helling (#7) and Dusbaba (#4). How different the future of the opponents – Dusbaba hardly ranks among the best players in the history of Ajax, but he conquered Europe with Anderlecht. Milanov, arguably the best Bulgarian centre-forward in the 1970s, fell victim of high placed Communist adversary – by the time Dusbaba climbed on top of Europe, Milanov was banned from football for life. And he still is the only Bulgarian player whose sentence was not revoked or reduced… he went down.
‘The Blues’ were in fighting mood at the beginning of the second leg – just before that, they destroyed the arch-enemy CSKA 4-1 in the Bulgarian derby and the moral was further boosted. There was cautious optimism and on December 10 the National Stadium in Sofia was full – 70 000 attended, braving the miserable weather. Captains Barry Hulshof and Kiril Ivkov shaking hands and the second leg is about to begin.
The cold did not help the game – it was nervous affair, quite tough, but not ugly. Ajax played careful defensive game, hoping for chancy counteattack. Levsky had no other option but to attack. Unfortunately, their afforts were rather chaotic and hardly dangerous… their first shot towards Ajax’s net was in the 33rd minute! But what a first shot – Pavel Panov scored. 1-0, enough for eliminating the Dutch. The lead lasted until 63rd minute – Ajax did not appear very dangerous, the pitch was hard and difficult for better game, providing only for physical struggle in which Levski was able to keep the Dutch at bay. Yet, Ruud Geels scored an equalizer and now game was over for Levski. Incredibly, Levski, known for mental fragility and giving up, went into attacking and now the new boy Grancharov proved himself – his brave attack left Panov in front of empty net. Grancharov passed him the ball, Panov scored 2-1. It was only the 66th minute, but nothing more happened to the end. And nothing happened in the overtime, so the winner was to be decide by penalty shoot-out. Neither team had a goalie known for saving penalties, hence, the winner was to be decided by the nerves of the shooters. Levski really had only two masters of penalties – Panov and Tishansky. The right winger Voinov was the third option, but he was already replaced in the 89th minute. Ajax did not seem to have great penalty takers either… the Bulgarian were to start, which is normally seen as the worse option. Ivan Tishansky was chosen for the opening kick - a psychological decision, for Tishansky had tremendous shot. A central defender, he was also regular free-kick taker and often scored. Clearly, the idea was to scare and break down Schrijvers, but Tishansky was not all that happy – he did not want to take the first penalty, for he already missed three in a row in recent games. Tishansky scores. He decided to do exactly what was expected from him – a hard, strong, vicious ball delivered straight. Schrijvers dived in the right direction, but unable to even touch the ball. 1-0. Ajax also opened with their best – Ruud Geels. He equalized. Pavel Panov scored 2-1. Ruud Krol equalized. Kiril Milanov scored – Notten equalized. Krassimir Borissov scored 4-3. Helling kicked and missed, his ball soaring above and out. Now it was a matter of one right kick – and the 5th Bulgarian player was another unwilling taker. Yordan Yordanov begged the coach not to select him, for he was scared. Scared or not, Yordanov paid attention and noticed that Schrijvers dived to the right in the first four penalties. Yordanov decided to kick the ball in the same corner, taking a risk, which eventually was worth gold: Schrijvers dived to the left, and the ball rested in the net.
The crucial 5th penalty – Yordanov clearly looks where he shoots, but Schrijvers hardly paid attention to the striker. He already decided to dive to the left… to his club’s peril. Both goalkeepers played no real role in the duels – it was a matter who would miss the target, and Helling missed… 5-3, Levski eliminated Ajax. The heroic squad eliminating Ajax. They are dressed in the kit they got when visiting Duisburg, which became ciltic for the fans, but the kit means this was not the squad of the second leg against Ajax – for Levski played in Adidas-made entirely blue kit that match.
1975 ended in high spirits – Levski was going to the ¼ finals of the UEFA Cup and were leading in the Bulgarian championship. Grancharov got permission to play in the domestic championship – this ended the problems in defense, or so it appeared. More miracles in the spring of the new year… the next opponent was Barcelona. At this stage there were no easy opponents, so nobody was particularly troubled by the draw. But by March 1976 Levski was different… just like many times before, strong fall half-season was followed by terrible spring, as if the season for Levski really finished about December, title was guaranteed and there was no need to play. Barcelona was having terrible season as well, but that was in the Spanish championship. By March the war between Weisweiler and Cruyff was in full force, but it did not show in the UEFA Cup.
Barca reached the ¼ finals with impressive record 7 wins and 1 loss. The only match they lost was the away first leg in the 1/32 round – 0-1 to PAOK. The Greeks were annihilated at Nou Camp 6-1. Then Lazio was demolished – true, the match in Rome was not played and Barca was awarded a win, but back home it was all Barca and 4-0. Vasas put some fight in the 1/8 finals, but the Catalans won both legs nevertheless – 3-1 and 1-0. They scored a lot… their defense hardly gave a chance to the opposition. They had Crujff and Neeskens, they were mighty Barcelona, even when playing miserably in Spain.
The first leg was in Barcelona, something giving some edge to Levski – in theory, for in practise there was no contest… 4-0 Barcelona. Levski distinguished themselves by two things: the first was infamous record – Levski was unable to shoot at Bracelona’s net even once! The second was curiousity was their kit – Levski played in something approximating a reserve kit: the usual blue shirts with white shirts and socks. It was weird – as visitors, they had to use away kit, because of the clash with the colours of Barcelona. Whatever the rules were at the time, they were not precisely enforced, for Levski’s blue shirt did not solve the problem. But it was interesting change – this was the only time I ever saw Levski playing in such kit. I am not even sure they had proper reserve kit during the 1970s, for they always played entirely in blue – in case other Bulgarian clubs used the same colours, they played in their second kit, no matter was it a home or away game. Barcelona seemingly did not make fuss about the blue shirts.
The unsual and unique kit of Levski – whire shorts and white socks were not to be seen again. Otherwise, it was déjà vu – Voinov against Neeskens. It happened at the 1974 World Cup, ending 4-1 for Holland, the Bulgarians not scoring at all (Krol scored for them) and pretty much just props to the Dutch show. Now it was Barcelona – Levski, 4-0 for Barca, Levski mostly watching what was going on.
Nothing good was going on – here Stefan Staykov saves with a risky dive, but normally the ball ended in the net despite his efforts.
This was true to the reality: Staykov acts like sweeper, but is obviously late to stop Asensi. Unstoppable Cruyff, no matter how many defenders. They look static, don’t they?
After the game ended the Bulgarians blamed the refferree – for an absurd penalty given to Barcelona in the 38th minutes, after which the score was opened. But it was clear that Levski was no match for Barca and were already out. The secomd leg was mere formality, and such hopelees fixtures normally do not attract crowds. Yet, 70 000 went to see the ‘formality’ in Sofia, myself included. It was largely to see live Barcelona and especially Cruyff – yes, we were to support our beloved Levski, but only on principle. Nobody dreamed of winning – it was just to enjoy Cruyff and Neeskens. How wrong we were – and how lucky.
The match started strange enough – both teams played in their regular kits, making the colour clash even bigger than the one on Nou Camp. Barcelona was sluggish and disoriented and Levski rushed in attacks. It was only the 8th minute, when Panov kicked hard ball on target and it was 1-0.
Mora jumps in vain… Panov opens for Levski.
It was 2-0 in the 10th minute, increadible. It was all Levski, mighty Barca nowhere to be seen… and the mellow, resigned mood of the crowd changed into hope. Were we going to see one the greatest miracles in football? Barcelona was more than lethargic – it was in shock and Levski was flying. In the 20th minute it was almost 3-0… Voinov missed in the 20th minute, but Barcelona was in desperate defense – Neeskens far back, next to Mora. The Catalans were a bit lucky, but not unbeatable… one thing was clear by now: their defense was quite leaky and they had mediocre goalkeeper. Goalkeeping was to remain a major problem for Barca until the beginning of the 1980s, but their strength was not in defensive game anyway. After the match, retrospectively, Voinov’s missed opportunity was lamented: if he scored, then the outcome of the duel would have been different, is the speculative logic. Reality was quite different: Levski was heroic, but not that great. Barcelona was sluggish and entangled in struggle between coach and players, but it did have Cruyff. He took charge. It was hardly one of his best performancies and Barcelona remained disjointed, but class is class. Marcial and Asensi scored two goals and the first half ended 2-2. The dream of miracle ended as well, but the fighting spirit remained and crowd was excited – if anything, it was good show. Asensi scores. Tishanski (on the far left) is late and can only watch gloomily.
The second half started with new bomb – Emil Spassov scored in the 47th minute, Levski leading again. But this time Barca had more teeth – Heredia equalized in the 57th, and then Neesklens scored from a penalty kick in the 62nd. Going back to normal… Barca leading, no more surprises. No more? Levski did not throw the towel. Kiril Ivkov defending and even going in attacks himself.
Neeskens trying to clear the ball from Panov – it should have been the other way around.
Levski’s efforts lead to another turn: Yordan Yordanov equalized in the 87th, and then in the last minute Levski was awarded a penaly. Which Panov scored and Levski won 5-4. Levski was eliminated, but what a thrill! True, Barcelona obviously was not in good form and Levski was not either, which made for rather bizarre match and even more bizarre result – but it was fun! Seeing Cruyff, seeing 9 goals, seeing your team winning against one of the mightiest clubs in the world – what more a fan could want? The dream ended and nobody was bitter – if anything, Levski was the first Bulgarian team to beat Cruyff-lead squad.