Tough Ludo game for Crues while Glenavon host Molde
LUDOGORETS may not be the best-known club in Bulgarian soccer but Crusaders are well aware that they are facing the dominant force from that nation this evening in their Champions League qualifying preliminary round first leg (6pm Belfast time).
The outfit based in Razgrad, in the north-east of Bulgaria, has won the last seven national titles - and has also achieved some impressive results in Europe, helping it into the top 40 of the Uefa club rankings, above seven-in-a-row Scottish champions Celtic.
Ludogorets drew with PSG and Basel (twice) in their Champions League group two seasons ago, and only lost narrowly at home to Arsenal; in fact they were only denied a famous win in the Parc Des Princes by an injury time equaliser by Angel di Maria, while the Gunners trailed 2-0 early on in the Levski Stadium in Sofia before winning 3-2 thanks to a an 88th minute goal from Mesut Ozil.
Liverpool left it even later to beat the Bulgarian champs at Anfield in 2014, with an injury time penalty from Steven Gerrard, and could only draw 2-2 in the return game in Sofia. Ludogerets also led Real Madrid in the Bernabeu in that group before eventually losing out 2-1.
Last year they beat both Braga of Portugal and German side Hoffenheim in the Europa League before being knocked out 4-0 on aggregate by AC Milan.
Their other victims in European action have included Lazio, PSV Einhoven, both Partizan and Red Star Belgrade, and Basel.
Their goalscorer in Madrid on their debut in the Champions League group stages was Marcelinho, who is still at the club, and there are eight other Brazilian natives and an Argentinian goalkeeper at the club.
Despite his own recent move to full-time status, matched by many of his players, Crues boss Stephen Baxter has quite rightly stated that Ludogorets are "light years" away from the Seaview outfit at this time.
At least the crowd won't be over the 40,000 mark, as is possible in Sofia, but a maximum of around a quarter of that in Razgrad.
However, if the Crues can keep their loss to less than three goals then that should be considered quite an achievement. The losers of this tie will meet Slovenia's Olimpija Ljubljana or Qaraba? of Armenian in the Europa League second qualifying round.
Actively hoping to reach that stage, and also in action tonight, in the Europa League first qualifying round first leg are Glenavon, who welcome Norwegians Molde to Mourneview Park (7.45pm).
The visitors are managed by Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who led them to second spot last season; they currently sit in third place with just over half the 2018 league campaign played.
Their star is teenage striker Erling Braut Haaland, son of former Leeds United and Manchester City Alf-Inge Haaland; the kid doesn't turn 18 until later this month but has scored eight goals in 14 league games, including all four in the first 21 minutes of a recent 4-0 victory away to previously unbeaten league leaders Brann (Bergen).
In their last involvement in Europe Molde topped Group A in the 2015-16 Europa League, beating Celtic twice, Fenerbahce once, and drawing twice with Ajax, before being knocked out 3-1 on aggregate by eventual winners Sevilla.
* Irish clubs in Europa League first qualifying round tomorrow (July 12):
Cliftonville v FC Nordsjælland (Denmark) (7.45pm)
Spartak Subotica (Serbia) v Coleraine (7.45pm)
Derry City v Dinamo Minsk (Belarus)(6pm)
FCI Levadia (Estonia) v Dundalk (5pm)
Shamrock Rovers v AIK (Sweden) (7.05pm).