Ludogorets Razgrad are through to the Europa League round of last 16 after a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw with Lazio in Sofia. On a night that saw plenty of European football drama, Bulgaria’s two-time defending champions were involved in possibly the most dramatic fixture of them all.
Feted at home in the week after their improbable 1-0 away win in Rome, Ludogorets saw their advantage erased within 17 seconds of play, as Lazio winger Keita Baldé scored what was, according to Uefa, only the second-fastest goal in the competition’s history.
Lazio, languishing in Serie A mid-table and at risk of missing out on European football next season, appeared determined to leave their mark in this year’s Europa League and were by far the superior side in the first half, even if they failed to increase their advantage before the interval.
A deserved second goal came through Colombian Brayan Perea, who nutmegged Ludogorets goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov in the 54th minute to put his side ahead on aggregate. Stoyanov did not have his best game between the posts and his mishit clearance gifted Baldé the opening goal too.
He was quick to accept blame after the match: “Even excluding the mistake with the first goal, I did not have a good day.”
“I made the mistake with the first goal, the ball took a surprise bounce. With the second, the ball went through the only open space, between my legs,” he said, but praised the team spirit in fighting back from two goals down.
With Lazio having the advantage of more away goals scored, anything less than a draw would have spelled elimination for Ludogorets and on the evidence of the first hour of play, the Bulgarian champions’ European run appeared at an end.
The spark for the comeback came, unsurprisingly, from Ludogorets’ best player this year, Slovenian striker Roman Bezjak, who has been scoring at a rate of every other game this season.
Bezjak first hit the post in the 65th minute with a long-range volley and two minutes later had his sixth goal in the competition after a deflection off a Lazio player.
Ludogorets surged forward and tied the match with 12 minutes left when a 25-metre dipping volley from Hristo Zlatinski caught Lazio goalkeeper Federico Marchetti by surprise and he dropped the ball over the goal line.
Lazio would go ahead on the 84th minute when ageless Miroslav Klose poached yet another European goal after Stoyanov failed to hold onto the ball following Giuseppe Biava’s shot. But Ludogorets would not be denied and substitute Juninho Quixadá flicked the ball over the onrushing Marchetti to equalise again two minutes from time.
Ludogorets will play Valencia in the round of last 16, with the first match at home on March 13, when it will be without Zlatinski and Romanian defender Cosmin Moti, both suspended after reaching their yellow cards limit in the match against Lazio.
(Photo: juan carlos arellano/sxc.hu)