For the second time in as many Champions League games, Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets were heartbreakingly denied a memorable result against one of Europe’s elite. After an injury-time penalty consigned them to a 2-1 defeat at Liverpool two weeks ago, they went down to the same score line on Wednesday in Sofia thanks to Karim Benzema’s late strike that kept Real Madrid on maximum points. For Ludogorets the result was made even tougher to take by the fact they had taken an early lead thanks to Marcelinho’s sixth minute header. But, having already missed an earlier penalty , Cristiano Ronaldo made no mistake on the second time of asking from the spot to get the visitors back on level terms.
The gulf in stature between the two clubs was demonstrated by the Bulgarian champions, who have risen from obscurity in recent years, having to take on the record 10 time European champions 250 miles away from their home ground, which was deemed not up to UEFA standards. With Real Madrid and their talisman Ronaldo in devastating goal-scoring form and having beaten Basel 5-1 two weeks ago, that gulf might have been expected to be replicated on the pitch.
Instead Ludogorets claimed another memorable moment to match their dramatic penalty shootout win against Steaua Bucharest to make it to the group stage for the first time. The man who was the hero on that occasion after going in goal and making two penalty saves was involved this time, too. Cosmin Moti headed on a corner at the near post and Marcelinho snuck in around the back to head in from just a couple of yards out. With Iker Casillas rooted to his line and Madrid’s defenders similarly statuesque, it was an all-too familiar set-piece goal conceded by Carlo Ancelotti’s side of late.
But almost immediately Ludogorets started to understand the full force of Madrid’s attacking quality, which had seen them score 20 times in the past four matches. With still just 10 minutes on the clock, Yordan Minev brought down Javier Hernandez, making his first start for the club in place of Benzema, in the box. On a run of eight goals in three matches, a goal for Ronaldo appeared a formality. Instead Valdislav Stoyanov dove to his right and parry the powerful shot to safety.
Fortunately for the Portuguese star a chance to make amends was soon forthcoming. It was Ronaldo who went down on this occasion, although with the contact from Moti minimal and the reaction from the Real Madrid man theatrical. Stoyanov again went the right way, but Ronaldo’s strike this time went beyond him and found the bottom corner to level things up.
The stage looked set for Madrid to grab control of the clash. Instead, chances came and went for the visitors before halftime. Hernandez missed the best of them when sweeping past the post after fine work from Isco down the left, while Gareth Bale saw a header spectacularly saved by Stoyanov. Ludogorets weren’t simply holding on grimly, either, and a long-range drive from Marcelinho forced Casillas to tip over.
But the better chances continued to be Madrid’s. Ronaldo had an effort cleared off the line by Alex Aleksandrov, before the go-ahead goal finally arrived 13 minutes from the end. Aleksandrov fell to the ground in the area to allow Marcelo’s cross to reach Benzema on the edge of the six yard box and the substitute volleyed into the net. Ludogorets claimed foul play for an alleged push on their defender, but the goal stood and once more they were left with nothing to show from an admirable display.