Perhaps it was fitting that Lazio should be beaten a Roman.
But nobody at the Italian club seemed too amused by their Europa League defeat to Ludogorets last year. Two of the Bulgarians’ four goals had been scored by a striker named Roman Bezjak, who blasted home from 30 yards in the first leg of the last-32 clash before wrong-footing Lazio’s defence with a strike across his body in the second.
Such feats caught the attention of scouts across Europe. Bezjak had already scored four times during the group stages, and his goals against Lazio prompted even Manchester United to send an observer out to Ludogorets’s next Europa League tie, against Valencia. This time, however, the Bulgarians were outclassed, losing 4-0 on aggregate. Bezjak’s greatest contribution was to earn, and then miss, a penalty.
No lucrative transfer materialised, but the striker was hardly surprised. He had been flattered by the interest, of course, telling one newspaper that “the fact they have come to see me with their own eyes is already a great tribute”. But he also knew better than to get caught up in the speculation, noting that the claims made by transfer gossip columnists were “usually not realistic."
Besides, it had still been a remarkable campaign. Bezjak’s six goals in the Europa League were enough for him to finish as the tournament’s third-highest scorer. He grabbed another 13 in the league, helping Ludogorets to retain the Bulgarian title for a third season running. Best of all, this was also the season in which he had earned his first caps for the Slovenian national team.
“A decade ago I was playing on the grass in front of my home, wanting to score goals like Raúl González and Ronaldo, or pretending to be Zlatko Zahovič for Slovenia," he told UEFA.com ahead of his team’s second leg against Lazio. "I played non-stop with my friends and now my dream is coming true.”
It feels like a just reward for the gamble Bezjak took by moving to Bulgaria in 2012. He had previously spent his entire career with Celje, a club based just 30 miles away from the town where he was born. Moving to Razgrad was a culture shock, both for the language barrier and the poverty he found there.
“The standard of living is much lower than for us,” he told the Slovenian newspaper, Delo. “But this job is a step forward in my career.”
Because while Bulgaria lags behind Bezjak’s home nation economically, Ludogorets themselves are a team with cash to spare. Their owner, Kiril Domuschiev, is not exactly on a par with the likes of Roman Abramovich, but his pockets run deep enough to allow investments far greater than most of Ludogorets’s domestic rivals could muster.
Without his spending, the club would never find itself in the position it does today – battling with Liverpool and Basel for a place in the Champions League knock-out phase. But there is nothing more Domuschiev can do to help his team in this year’s competition. Whether they are capable of making the next step will come down to the players he has signed.
Ludogorets have already turned heads in Group B, beating Basel and coming within a whisker of drawing at Anfield. They scored first against Real Madrid in Bulgaria, too, and did not fall behind to the reigning European champions until the 77th minute of that game.
But they need to beat Liverpool on Wednesday if they are to have any realistic chance of making it through the group. And that target would start to look a lot more achievable if Bezjak could reprise the decisive role that he played against Lazio last season.
The striker has not yet hit his stride this term, scoring just twice in seven league games. Although he grabbed a couple more goals during Champions League qualifying, he is yet to find the net so far in the group stage. At Anfield he was a threat, hitting the post when the score was still 0-0 and almost slipping the Liverpool offside trap on at least one more occasion.
But, as the old saying has it, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. If Bezjak and his team-mates want to keep their improbable journey going, they will need to make their chances count.