RAZGRAD – Inter will take to the field in Razgrad tonight at 18:55 CET (19:55 local time) for the first leg of this UEFA Europa League Round of 32 tie. The Nerazzurri will face Ludogorets, in what will be the first ever fixture between these two teams. The second leg will take place at San Siro on 27 February at 21:00 CET. Tonight’s game will be played at the Ludogorets Arena in Razgrad, which has a capacity of 10,000.
A LOOK AT LUDOGORETS
TOP OF THE LEAGUE, KESERU TOP-SCORER
Ludogorets are the reigning Bulgarian champions and are dominating their domestic league: in 21 matches they have won 15 and drawn six; they hold a seven point lead over second-place Levski Sofia and have scored 36 goals while only conceding eight.
The club’s top-scorer in the league is the Romanian Claudiu Keseru who has scored 16 goals in 27 appearances. The club’s next best attackers are the Polish forward Jakub Swierczok (11 goals) and the Congolese attacker Lukoki (9 goals).
THE COACH: PAVEL VRBA
The club’s Head Coach, since last December, has been Pavel Vrba. The Czech coach left Viktoria Plzen to take over at the Bulgarian Club. Having taken charge of the Czech Republic National Team, and led them to Euro 2016, he then joined Anzhi Makhachkala. He returned to Plzeň in 2017 with whom he had won the league in 2011 and 2013 during his first five years at the club. He won his third league title in 2018 and led the club to the group stages of the Champions League for the third time. He had been both a player and a coach for Baník Ostrava, and he won the Slovakian league in the 2006/07 season as coach of Žilina.
LUDOGORETS IN EUROPE
Ludogorets’ campaign in Europe began early on in the season with the first round of qualifying in the UEFA Champions League. They were eliminated by Ferencvaros, and the Bulgarians were relegated to the Europa League, where they started their journey in the second round of qualifying. They eliminated Valur, the New Saints and Maribor before they managed to progress through Group H, finishing in second place behind Espanyol. They opened their account in the group with two wins over CSKA Moskva and Ferencvaros before losing twice in succession against Espanyol (including a heavy 6-0 loss in Spain). Ludogorets qualified with two 1-1 draws. With just eight points, Ludogorets qualified for the Round of 32 with fewer points than all of the other 23 teams that progressed from the UEFA Europa League group stages.
LUDOGORETS VS. INTER: NO PRECEDENT
The Nerazzurri and Ludogorets have never played each other. However, Inter have played twice before in Bulgaria. The first encounter dates back to the semi-final of the 1967 Champions Cup against CSKA Sofia: 1-1 at San Siro, 1-1 at Vasil Levski (here is a video and a report of the match) and Inter won the decider 1-0 in Bologna. Inter drew 0-0 with FC Etar at the Stadion Ivaylo in Veliko Tarnovo in 1974, in the first leg of the Round of 32 in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (Inter won the return leg in Milan 3-0 with a goal from Oriali and a brace from Boninsegna).
LUDOGORETS’ ENCOUNTERS WITH ITALIAN TEAMS
Ludogorets have played Italian teams on two previous occasions, both of which came in the Round of 32 in the UEFA Europa League. The Bulgarians knocked out Lazio in the 2013/14 season (1-0, 3-3) and were knocked out by AC Milan in 2017/18 (0-3, 0-1).
LINKS BETWEEN LUDOGORETS AND ITALY
Among Ludogorets’ ranks is Cosmin Moti, who briefly played in Italy on loan at Siena in 2008/09 and featured in four Serie A matches. He was the hero of the moment in 2014 when following the sending-off of his side’s goalkeeper he went in goal and saved two penalties against Steaua Bucarest, qualifying Ludogorets for the group stages of the Champions League.
Three Nerazzurri players have already played against Ludogorets: Antonio Candreva, who faced them in Lazio’s colours during the 2013/14 season. Marcelo Brozovic has not had a great time against Ludogorets in the past: he has lost twice against the Bulgarians in the 2013/14 season while playing for Dynamo Zagreb. Alexis Sanchez faced them in the 2016/17 season while as an Arsenal player on two occasions during the UEFA Champions League group stages, opening the scoring in a 6-0 home win.
INTER AND LUDOGORETS’ CURRENT FORM
Ludogorets returned to league action for an official match on 15 February with a 6-0 victory against Botev Vratsa: the winter break lasted two months, from 15 December. During January and February Vrba’s team played six friendlies. As per Antonio Conte’s announcement, Milan Skriniar and Marcelo Brozovic will be absent from tonight’s match.
Ludogorets last five competitive matches
Spetemvri 0-3 Ludogorets (Bulgarian Cup)
Ludogorets 1-1 Cherno More
Ludogorets 1-1 Ferencvaros (Europa League)
Slavia Sofia 1-1 Ludogorets
Ludogorets 6-0 Botev Vratsa
Inter’s last five competitive matches
Inter 2-1 Fiorentina (Coppa Italia)
Udinese 0-2 Inter
Inter 4-2 AC Milan
Inter 0-1 Napoli (Coppa Italia)
Lazio 2-1 Inter
CONTE AND VRBA’S PRE-MATCH COMMENTS
Conte: “We’re playing a team which is used to playing in European competitions. Ludogorets are a good team, with individuals with quality: they’re excellent going forwards. We will need to be determined, hardworking and we will need desire: we’ll need to be at our best, because we are playing a team who are in a good moment”.
(Read all of what the Nerazzurri Coach had to say at his press conference).
Vrba: “It will be a difficult match against one of the best teams in Europe. However, we don’t want to totally let Inter fill the role of favourites. I don’t think my players need motivating. Just the name Inter is enough for everyone. This team isn’t afraid of games like this, we’ll be ready for them.”
REFEREE, SUSPENSIONS AND CAUTIONS
No players are suspended for this evening’s match. Inter have four players one booking away from a suspension, as well as Antonio Conte: Diego Godin, Nicolò Barella, Lautaro Martinez and Antonio Candreva. Two Ludogorets players are in the same position: Cicinho and Abel.
The referee for tonight’s encounter at the Ludogorets Arena will be the Spaniard Carlos del Ceroo Grande. His assistants will be Juan Carlos Yuste and Roberto Alonso. Fourth Official: Guillermo Cuadra Fernandez. VAR and Assistant VAR: Juan Martínez Munuera (ESP) and Diego Barbero (ESP).