CSKA Sofia held by Fulham in Europa League debut

CSKA Sofia’s debut in Europa League, at home against Fulham, ended in a 1-1 draw at the Vassil Levski national stadium on September 17 2009.

The visitors were welcomed by a hostile capacity home crowd which greeted the English supporters with banners reading “English Animals”, a likely reference to the Michael Shields case, but any hostilities inside the ground were only restricted to the occasional verbal assault, and the riot police deployed around the packed home end and the visitors’ section were not needed.

If the passions on the terraces were reaching a boiling point, the same could not be said for the quality of football or its pace in the first half. The hosts started lively and stood better on the battered turf, still recuperating from a Madonna concert nearly three weeks earlier.

The two sides spent most of the time before the break trying to win the battle in the middle of the park, waiting for the other side to blink first. Ivan Stoyanov and Spas Delev were particularly impressive for the hosts, but Fulham held on without too much difficulty.

With difficult trips awaiting CSKA, draws at home are opportunities lost and the Reds started the second half by pushing forward. Delev was menacing in front of the box, while Yordan Todorov constantly harassed Fulham’s keeper David Stockdale with long-range efforts on goal.

As the match was approaching the hour mark, CSKA’s Brazilian substitute Michel Platini collected the ball chested-down by Marquinhos and unleashed a 20-metre volley into the back of Stockdale’s net.

The hosts were 1-0 up and the terraces exploded with noise, but the game was hardly restarted when Fulham equalised in a swift counter-attack. Diomansy Kamara, reported to be unsettled at Craven Cottage, put the hard-battling Fulham side back in the match just when it seemed that it was about to crack under the pressure of the Bulgarian league leaders.

The Senegalese international prowled on to a ball and beat keeper Ivan Karadjov, who had left his box in an attempt to intercept him.

CSKA immediately retaliated and forced David Stockdale into a fine save from a potent Todorov drive, which was parried over the bar.

A point was always going to be a valuable one for Fulham as they made their first appearance in the group stages of a European competition in the club’s history. On the flip side, the hosts could have achieved more, but in the end both teams shared a point in their opening Group E encounter.

Roy Hodgson did not make a single substitution throughout the entire match, which given the fact that he had already fielded the substitute side, was all but expected.

“I think the team certainly justified the selection there tonight. We played against a good team. It doesn’t matter which 11 Fulham players we’d have chosen to put on the field, it would’ve been a tough game for us”, he said for the club’s website.
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“They have started their season brilliantly, they move the ball about very quickly and they’re buoyed by a large and vociferous crowd. I thought we handled the situation brilliantly.”

In the other game in Group E, FC Basel earned an impressive 2-0 victory against Italian side Roma. Basel are temporary group leaders with three points, Fulham and CSKA Sofia with one apiece and Roma at the bottom with none.