Martial law for Levski
Wednesday, 26 November 2003
By Stoyan Georgiev
Having earned a 2-2 draw in the away leg of their UEFA Cup second-round tie against SK Slavia Praha, PFC Levski Sofia are odds-on to win a place in the third round.
In coach Georgi Vassilev, now in his second spell at the club, few doubt that Levski have the most gifted tactician in Bulgarian club football working for them. Everyone connected with the club now hopes that the man they call 'The General' will be able to restore order.
It has been a tempestuous few years for Levski. While they have continued to win honours at home - including three league titles and three Bulgarian Cups in the last four seasons - coaches have come and gone at an alarming rate, and still the club have not achieved their dream of a foothold in Europe.
It was no surprise that Vassilev was brought back to the club this season - for most people's money, the disciplinarian and most successful Bulgarian coach of the 1990s was the only man capable of taking the job on.
Vassilev's reputation rests upon a remarkable run which began with leading FC Etar Veliko Turnovo to their only Bulgarian title in 1991. He moved to Levski in 1993, guiding them to a stunning win against Rangers FC in UEFA Champions League qualifying before missing out on the group stage with a narrow defeat by SV Werder Bremen.
Having completed his contract at Levski, Vassilev led their local rivals PFC CSKA Sofia to a Bulgarian double in 1997 before achieving perhaps his greatest coup in 2001 as he steered third division 1. FC Union Berlin to the German Cup final.
However, some still deride Vassilev as a negative coach. His defensive tactics were blamed for the failure of both Levski and CSKA's attempts to reach the group stage of the Champions League. The most controversial moment came in a qualifying game against Romania's FC Steaua Bucuresti in 1997 when, following a 3-3 draw away, Vassilev opted to play for a draw at home, only to see his CSKA side concede two goals in the last ten minutes and bow out of the competition.
Yet his ability to get the best out of unspectacular sides remains one of Vassilev's hallmarks. Tellingly his title-winning CSKA sides of the late 1990s were regarded as lacking talented players but imbued with incredible work-rate, stamina and team spirit.
The current Levski side are a cut above in technical terms. In the likes of goalkeeper Dimitar Ivankov, Ilian Stoianov, Elin Topuzakov, Sasa Simonovic, Georgi Chilikov and star striker Georgi Ivanov, Levski possess the basis of a fine young side.
What remains to be seen now is what Vassilev can do with them. Having gradually assimilated Todor Kolev and Asen Bukarev into successful roles within the team, he has certainly impressed many observers, but as it was with his predecessors, it will be on European results that the coach will be judged.
" I know that there is a lot of quality here already. I will get everything I possibly can out of them "
Playing for time
There is little doubt that Vassilev needs time. "I arrived in the middle of the first part of the season," he said. "I know that there is a lot of quality here already. I will get everything I possibly can out of them."
The last coach to successfully complete a contract at Levski was Vassilev himself in 1995. Should his side complete the win against Slavia on Thursday, he could yet survive the bucking bronco of the Levski hot-seat for a second time.