Rarely has there been such a stark case of David versus Goliath in the prestigious Champions League as will be on show when Ludogorets take on Real Madrid on Wednesday. In May Real Madrid held aloft the European Cup for a tenth time to strengthen their position as the most successful club in the competition’s history. Ludogorets have only played 19 European matches in their entire history. That should not be surprising when you consider that the Bulgarian champions have only been in existence since 2001. In a further sign of the gulf in stature of the two clubs, Ludogorets’ home stadium holds only 8,000 fans, meaning that Wednesday’s match will take place 250 miles away in Bulgaria’s capital. Sofia.
The clear temptation then is to think that this will be one of the great Champions League mismatches. After winning the much coveted “La Decima,” Real Madrid went out and splashed further cash on 2014 World Cup stars James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos in an effort to return to a position as Europe’s dominant club both on and off the pitch. The new arrivals, though, also led to the exits of two of last season’s key performers, Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso, and there were some early problems for the new look side, which lost two of its first three La Liga games, including to local rivals Atletico Madrid. Yet recent weeks have seen those issues, at least temporarily, washed away in a flurry of goals.
Madrid have scored 20 times in their last four matches, in a run that began with a 5-1 dismissal of Basel to kick start their Champions League defense. With a front six comprising of Kroos, Luka Modric, Rodriguez, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and current Ballon d’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo, such a spectacular rate of scoring is hardly surprising, particularly so when Ronaldo is playing at the top of his game. Even for a player who, along with Lionel Messi, has transformed the way goal-scoring statistics are evaluated in recent years, a run of eight goals in three games is truly extraordinary. Against Villarreal on Saturday, a group of Manchester United fans paid for a plane to fly overhead trailing a banner pleading with the club’s former star to return to Old Trafford. His current form may make such overt desperation understandable, but it is hard to see Madrid being prepared to let the Portuguese star go anywhere any time soon.
It is an ominous task then that awaits the Ludogorets defense on Wednesday. Among those trying to stop Ronaldo and co. will be Cosmin Moti. It will undoubtedly be the biggest test of the Romanian’s career, but this season he has already produced heroics of which even Ronaldo would be proud. It was Moti who provided a moment that will be hard to top throughout this Champions League campaign when in a playoff against Steaua Bucharest, the former Rapid Bucharest center-back was forced to go in goal for a penalty shootout. Not only did he score from the spot but he saved two to send his team through to the group stage for the first time.
Many expected a team that has risen from obscurity in recent years to be crudely exposed among Europe’s elite. Instead they more than held their own against another great European name in their opening match when it took an injury-time penalty for Liverpool at Anfield to finally shake them off. It will require that same resistance and more to give the mighty Real Madrid a similarly hard time on Wednesday.
Prediction: Real Madrid have received an average of almost 13 shots per game at their goal this season, which illustrates the vulnerability they have with the balance of last season yet to be rediscovered. Having looked positive going forward at Anfield, it is quite possible that Ludogorets will get a memorable goal against the holders. Yet there looks little prospect of them keeping them out at the other end. With Madrid having so many devastating offensive weapons, and with Ronaldo in scintillating form, another comfortable win should be in store.
Ludogorets 1-4 Real Madrid
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Soccer Plus