As Real Madrid began this match strutting aristocratically, it took about 45 seconds for the commentary team to mention the story of David and his fabled opponent, Goliath. As annoying and biblically revisionist as that cliché generally is, for once it looked like a big v small sporting encounter would properly mirror the story of the giant and the boy with the slingshot, and the small fries would actually win. Ludogorets rudely scored the opening goal after five minutes and Real, like a shocked member of the royal family staring at freshly smashed Ming vase, took a little time to recover. It looked like business had returned to normal when Hernandez won a penalty 4 minutes later but the Ludogorets keeper saved Ronaldo’s shot strongly, diving well to his right to beat it away with contempt. Ancelotti nodded, unperturbed by Ronaldo’s miss, apparently confident that, as this 1-0 scoreline was forged in the first ten minutes, there would be more opportunities through which to wrestle back control of the match. They should have been level when Ronaldo banged the ball into the net, after fine work from Isco and Marcelo down the left, only to see the linesman’s flag raised nervously. The decision was wholly incorrect and so 1-0 it remained. Real were showing only flashes of urgency, almost glaring around at the Ludogorets players, like they expecting them to part compliantly and usher Ronaldo through onto goal. Real’s poor passing repeatedly led to threatening counter-attacks, which were foiled as much the Bulgarian’s poor final pass as Real’s defending.
A series of corners made life very nervy for the European champions, as their defending looked ever less convincing. With 23 minutes gone, Real would eventually break and win another penalty, via Ronaldo’s highly embellished tumble. Ronaldo, a sighter already in the bank, shot lower and harder into the same left corner, and this time Stoyanov could do nothing to stop it. 1-1 and Real were back on track. Ludogorets were not to be dissuaded from pursuing the full return of points however, and they snapped into life again after the equaliser, forcing Casillas into a good save in the 29th minute. Hernandez answered with a strong header of his own, but it flew directly at the keeper.
Slowly game descended into a pattern; Real hogging the ball, passing it around, with Ludogorets with 9 or 10 men behind the ball. Real would then either play an ineffective final ball, or would sloppily turn possession over in midfield, and in either case Ludogorets would break with energy and purpose. Isco offered just as much invention going forward as he did the ball to the Ludogorets midfield terriers, and a messy instance of the latter was nearly punished, only to be overplayed by the Bulgarians.
The rest of the first half was stifled in a stalemate, only Bale’s whipped outside-of-the-boot cross to Ronaldo, and then a final offside attack from Ludogorets, threatened to break the deadlock before the half time whistle sounded. Ludogorets went into the dressing rooms in Sofia no doubt pleased by the way they held the Spanish giants at bay. Ancelotti, on the other hand, will have been very displeased by his sides lethargic and uninspired first half.
Real, expectedly, started the second half with much more vigour and attacking intent, and Ronaldo flashed a shot right across the face of goal in the opening minutes of the second period. Keeping them honest, Ludogorets were almost put through by a quickly taken free kick in Real’s half, with the Madrid defence only barely alert enough to foil it. Determined to push forward despite the continued shakiness in midfield and defence, Madrid did so and Bale forced a very good save from Stoyanov, heading crisply from Isco’s cross, only for the keeper to palm it away perfectly. The Ludogorets defence began to retreat deeper and deeper, happy to pack their defensive third with able, willing bodies.
After a counter attack forced Casillas to save spectacularly, Ludogorets had another corner. It wass floated in, cleared well, and suddenly Bale was racing away on the counter. Running like a racehorse all the way out of his own half, Bale speared the ball left to Ronaldo, who then gave it to the overlapping Marcelo. From his cross, the chance wass missed, quite astonishingly, by Hernandez. A tap in appeared to present itself willingly, but the Mexican somehow contrived to cushion the ball away from the goal rather than into it. Real were stunned by the miss, and their play becomes stodgy, frustrated, twice turning over possession and offering Ludogorets respite because of poor communication.
With 25 minutes to go, the still shocked Hernandez was replaced by Benzema, who immediately offered a stronger focal point up front. Ronaldo tried to take matters into his own hands, and his toe poked shot with the keeper rushing out was cleared off the line. Then, after more than an hour of pressure, Ludogorets finally wilted under it, and conceded with 15 minutes to go. Marcelo crossed perfectly from the left and Benzema finished cleanly. The Ludogorets centre half was appealing for a foul by the Frenchman, but his gurning was ill-advised, and his team paid for it. 2-1 to Real Madrid, and the game petered out, despite the Ludogorets players frothing and charging around eagerly. Real should have scored again, but Kroos, who had come on for Modric, skied his shot badly from the edge of the box, under no pressure.
A goal-mouth scramble threatened to secure a point for the Bulgarians, but, in the end, Real did enough to leave with the points. Ronaldo had his Achilles scraped in a tackle, and hobbled off the pitch at the final whistle. Ludogorets, after facing Real Madrid and Liverpool, will feel very disappointed not to have gotten at least a point from each match, which says a lot for their character, quality and grit. In the end tonight, the introduction of Benzema tipped the Real dominance over into vital incision, but Real’s shaky defending and early sloppiness in midfield were concerning. The goals are below.
LUDOGORETS 1 – 2 REAL MADRID