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Plucky Ludogorets' rise to the Champions League group stage

Ludogorets at Anfield, preparing to take on Liverpool in their first Champions League Group Stage game.

While Steven Gerrard lifted the Champions League trophy in May 2005, an altogether smaller-seeming battle was no closer to being resolved in the northeast Bulgarian town of Razgrad.

One of the local sides, a four-year-old entity that was then called Razgrad 2000, was banging its head against a glass ceiling. Good enough to qualify for promotion from the country's amateur, regionalised fourth tier, it had failed to make the leap on financial grounds.

Did anyone care enough for things to get better?

The old Ludogorets club had been a staple of the second division for longer than most could care to remember. There were other competitors around, too, and Razgrad had a population of just 33,000.

Nearly nine and a half years on, the club whose early years had foundered upon impatience and frustration will walk tall alongside Gerrard and his teammates at Anfield.

They are equals now, fighting to escape Group B of the Champions League with Brendan Rodgers' side, Basel and -- well, why not? -- Real Madrid.

They have done what none of the old Eastern European giants could do and have in fact beaten two of them to get here.

Ludogorets -- they took their now-defunct peers' name and league license in 2010 and have, somewhat dubiously, appropriated their history -- have taken less than a decade to put far more decorated names to shame, and the only real surprise is it did not happen sooner.

Ludogorets had been upwardly mobile since finally reaching the third division in 2006. Their ship eventually came in four years later, when, coinciding with their appropriation of their predecessor's identity, they won promotion to the second division (eastern group) and were taken over by local pharmaceutical businessman Kiril Domuschiev.

What happened after that was remarkable. Promotion to the A Group -- Bulgaria's top flight -- was achieved at the first asking. A little more than 12 months later, they had completed a domestic treble of the league title, the Bulgarian Cup and the Bulgarian Supercup.

That feat was repeated this past season, and a league title in the intervening campaign ensured that since their promotion, Ludogorets have been next to unstoppable domestically.

The money has helped. Six-figure transfer fees have been paid for players such as Cosmin Moti, the Romanian defender who was pressed into goalkeeping action in the play-off against Steaua Bucharest and decisively saved two penalties in the shootout, young Dutch left-winger Virgil Misidjan, an outstanding prospect who was attracted last year from Willem II and has since been linked with Crystal Palace, and the Slovakian striker Roman Bezjak.

The squad is remarkably cosmopolitan, including a Finn, a Frenchman, a Portuguese, two Colombians, several Brazilians, a Spaniard, a Tunisian, a Madagascan and a Canadian.

What galls Ludogorets' rivals, including far bigger names such as Levski and CSKA Sofia, is recruitment has been far from scattergun: the club's adherence to a possession-based, attacking style -- a far pacier one than most clubs in a stodgy local league will adopt -- has not been compromised, and player additions have come as the result of sound scouting more than punts on agents' recommendations.

- Delaney: Group B Preview

- Report: UEFA hands Ludogorets partial stadium closure

There is little to suggest Ludogorets' money, of which they have far more than any of their rivals, several of whom have flagged since the old days of receiving patronage from different areas of the state, is going to be misspent any time soon.

Still more noteworthy is their form in Europe. Since 2010, Ludogorets have taken to every new challenge like a duck to water, and by 2012-13 they were contesting their first Champions League qualifier against Dinamo Zagreb.

That was narrowly lost 4-3 on aggregate, but the past season's adventure saw their upward trajectory continue. Defeats of Slovan Bratislava and Partizan Belgrade were followed by a 6-2 aggregate loss to Basel in the Champions League playoff round, but that was enough to grant them a Europa League tilt that, at the very least, made their name audible to those with broad-ish horizons.

Ludogorets twice beat PSV Eindhoven 2-0, twice gained revenge over Dinamo Zagreb and then, stunningly, beat Lazio 4-3 on aggregate in the round of 32 -- Bezjak scored a first-leg winner in the Stadio Olympico before, with the Italians 3-2 up and heading through in the second, the outstanding right-winger Juninho Quixada scored the late goal that set up a tie with Valencia. That was lost 4-0 over two legs, but the statement had already been made.

Progression to this season's Champions League group stage, which seemed the logical next step after Ludogorets had achieved almost everything else in the previous three years, might have been sealed quirkily, due to Moti's heroics, but within it lay a serious point.

Victories over Partizan and Steaua were what got them this far. Ten years ago, these two giants of the old Eastern Bloc would have found such a reality inconceivable.

Ludogorets are showing that when a club is run responsibly and with sustainability in mind -- its stadium is soon to double in size (Ludogorets currently play their "home" European games 200 miles away in Sofia) and training facilities are far ahead of anything else in the country -- it is possible to overturn the old way of things in countries whose domestic football has suffered terribly since the Iron Curtain fell.

Unirea Urziceni, small-town champions of neighbouring Romania in 2009 and extinct two seasons later, are an example of how easily giants can be toppled and how easily, too, a club can go to ruin if success is built on sand.

Ludogorets, in dominating a league whose title has rarely left Sofia, are setting a record straight: now, of all times, names are there to be made if a little intelligence and integrity come into play. Floundering behemoths might not stay ahead on reputations and handshakes alone.

Levski Sofia, 100 years old and 26 times the champions of Bulgaria, were the country's previous group stage representatives. They lost six games out of six in 2006-07. Barcelona, Chelsea and Werder Bremen were, admittedly, tough opponents.

They had got that far after winning the league in 2005-06, the same year in which Razgrad 2000 began their barely precedented move up the leagues.

Ludogorets can contemplate a group of similar difficulty this time around, and a tussle for Europa League qualification with Basel might be their best bet.

One shock result against Liverpool or Real would feel like the next achievement -- and one that would reinforce the idea that outside of Europe's top leagues, a new order lies tantalisingly within reach.

Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.

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