Trailing by a goal from last week’s first leg, Ludogorets Razgrad host Kazakh counterparts Astana on Thursday, when the winner of the teams’ third qualifying round tie will progress to the Europa League playoffs.
Dutch giants Ajax await either side in the final stage before the competition’s group phase, which Ludogorets have reached in every one of the last six years.
Having gone one goal ahead in last Thursday’s contest in the Kazakh capital, Ludogorets then let their lead slip shortly before the break, and within the space of 15 minutes either side of half time they found themselves 2-1 behind.
After Noah Sonko Sundberg struck in the 34th minute at Astana Arena, the home side replied with goals from Zarko Tomasevic and Aleksandr Marochkin to take a valuable advantage with them to Bulgaria for this week’s return.
Ludogorets slipped out of Champions League qualifying earlier this summer, after winning their 12th straight domestic title in June, when a dramatic final matchday saw their 1-0 win away to Cherno More pip second-placed CSKA Sofia to top spot by a single point.
Despite progressing past Ballkani in the opening round, Ivaylo Petev’s side then crashed out to Slovenian champions Olimpija due to conceding a decisive stoppage-time goal in Ljubljana.
The Eagles recently started their new top-flight campaign with a shock opening loss, quickly followed by two 5-0 wins; Sunday’s emphatic 3-0 success against CSKA – achieved despite Sonko Sundberg being sent off during the second half – has further brightened the mood.
Although they have often exited before the knockout stage, Ludogorets have been a recent fixture in the Europa League’s autumn phase, but in order to keep their hopes alive this year they must now fight back from behind against a club boasting similar pedigree.
Having also dropped out in the Champions League’s second qualifying round earlier this month, Astana are now seeking to reach a European group stage for the sixth time since 2016.
While Ludogorets finished third behind Real Betis and eventual finalists Roma in Europa League Group C last term, the champions of Kazakhstan have been knocked out in qualifying for various UEFA competitions in each of the last three years.
After being crushed 6-0 on aggregate by Dinamo Zagreb to end their pursuit of a Champions League place, Grigori Babayan’s side now find themselves 90 minutes away from meeting Ajax at the end of August – an improbable victory in that tie would then send them into the group stage.
Midway through the defence of their national title, Astana lie six points adrift of Kazakhstan Premier League leaders Ordabasy, but having been spared a weekend fixture they should now arrive in Razgrad with fresh legs and real hope of setting up a trip to Amsterdam.
Ludogorets Razgrad Europa League form:
Ludogorets Razgrad form (all competitions):
Astana Europa League form:
Astana form (all competitions):
We say: Ludogorets Razgrad 2-0 Astana (Ludogorets win 3-2 on aggregate)
So far this season, Astana have failed to score at the same rate as last term, when they were crowned Kazakh champions. Despite finding the net twice on home soil, Thursday’s visitors were shut out twice by Dinamo Zagreb, and if a talented Ludogorets side can keep the back door shut they are sure to overturn their deficit.