Sofia rivals Levski and CSKA look like the teams to beat this season.

By Rumen Paytashev in Sofia
Following their dramatic victory last term, when they clinched the title by a single point, Levski are looking to defend their crown with a number of the players who took part in their successful 2006 campaign, when they reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup after becoming the first Bulgarian team to make the Champions League group stage.

Left-winger Hristo Yovov returned from Cyprus in March and central defender Elin Topuzakov came back from Israel in June, while French midfielder Cedric Bardon is also back in the fold after playing in both of those countries. However, coach Emil Velev failed in his attempt to recruit national team striker Dimitar Makriev from Ashdod of Israel as a replacement for injured Georgi Ivanov.

There has also been much speculation about owner Todor Batkov selling his shares to former executive director Nasko Sirakov, though both parties deny such rumours. Sirakov says: “I haven’t any intention to return to Levski, but I don’t agree with the current team selection.”

Arch-rivals CSKA have been extremely busy during the close season, even signing seven players in one day. Among the better-known recruits are Ivan Stoyanov (nephew of former Bulgaria star Yordan Lechkov) and Kosta Yanev from Sliven, Spas Delev (Pirin), Orlin Orlinov (Slavia) and former CSKA midfielder Svetoslav Petrov from Azerbaijan’s Neftchi.

CSKA coach Luboslav Penev, who says he wants to build a team of mostly Bulgarians, has also threatened to pull on his boots again at the age of 42 – which may interest one of the club’s new owners, Dimitar Borissov, who has said the playing budget will be reduced by
40 per cent this season.

Cherno More were one of the big surprises last season, finishing third and running Stuttgart very close in the UEFA Cup. Coach Nikola Spasov will have been delighted that his star turn Alex rejected the opportunity to return to his former club Levski because he feels so at home in the city of Varna.

In recent years, Lovech have begun the season with great ambition only to fall away, but coach Stanimir Stoilov, who also heads the national team, hopes to change all that this term with the signing of Svetoslav Todorov (who has returned home after more than eight seasons in English football), former CSKA midfielder Hristo Yanev from Grenoble in France and Serbian midfielder Nebojsa Jelenkovic from Spartak Trnava in Slovakia. Forward Krum Bibishkov has moved to Romanian club Steaua Bucharest.

Capital teams Lokomotiv and Slavia should also be challenging for the European positions. Loko’s Serbian coach Dragan Okuka will again rely heavily on the goals of Martin Kamburov, while Slavia have put their faith in new coach Velislav Vutsov, who was sacked by Levski last season after they lost at home to BATE of Belarus in the third preliminary round of the Champions League.

The rest of the teams in the top flight have different agendas.

With his former Stuttgart team-mate Fredi Bobic as managing director, ex-national star Krassimir Balakov has enormous ambitions with Chernomorets from the city of Burgas.
City rivals Lokomotiv Plovdiv and Botev have contrasting situations. While Lokomotiv’s female owner Galya Topalova is financially secure, Botev’s owner Dimitar Hristolov infamously didn’t pay his players for at least two months, causing many to seek transfers.

For Pirin, Minyor, Sliven and Lokomotiv Mezdra, retaining top-flight status is about the limit of their ambitions. But what of the newcomers?

Beroe, champions in 1986 and who were unjustly relegated last year because of administrative decisions, return under former Levski midfielder Ilian Iliev, who will look to the experienced Kostadin Vidolov, Ivaylo Pargov and Zahari Dimitrov.

Ex-Slavia coach Stevica Kuzmanovski is in charge at Montana, who have been in the top flight three times before, while Sportist from the small city of Svoge are there for the first time in their 85-year history. They are coached by former CSKA defender Aleksandar Aleksandrov and eight of the team are CSKA youth graduates.

Bulgaria fixtures 2009-10