The 3-0 scoreline may on the face of it seem emphatic, but Cliftonville headed back to Belfast from Sofia last night with their heads held high.
Ultimately Bulgarian kingpins CSKA had too much in their locker for Eddie Patterson’s men but the Reds fought bravely for 90 minutes, often frustrating the opposition in theVasil Levski Stadium only for two quick fire second half goals to settle the tie.
Things started ominously for Cliftonville as it took just nine minutes for Pavel Dochev’s side to take the lead.
Boris Galchev swung in a low corner towards the corner of the six yard box finding Ivan Stoyanov at the near post.
The defender’s miss hit effort bounced up towards Pavel Vidanov who hooked the ball over the head of George McMullan and into the net.
Reds new-boy Stephen Garrett picked up a yellow card on the 20th minute for a robust tackle on the edge of the Cliftonville box on full back Stoyanov.
The resulting free kick was missed by the entire Reds backline giving Rui Miguel the simplest of chances.
Incredibly, the Portuguese forward missed from one yard out, allowing the ball bounce up off his thigh and clip the top of the crossbar. It’s a miss you could well be seeing on bloopers DVDs for years to come.
The former Academica forward missed another chance on the 40th minute when one-on-one with John Connolly but he could only find the side netting.
CSKA dominated the play, rarely allowing the north Belfast side any time on the ball but Cliftonville fiercely fought to keep the score at just 1-0 at the break.
The second half was no more than a minute old and the home team were on the attack again.
This time it was Alex Tonev who evaded his marker to get on the end of a Marcos Marquinhos’ through ball and with only Connolly to beat the Bulgarian Under 19 international shot into the side netting when he really should have scored.
On the 64th minute Ciaran Donaghy kept the Reds in the game with two magnificent goal line clearances — first stopping Aleksander Tonev’s effort before somehow getting a leg to Georgi Illiev’s rebound effort to deflect it away from the net.
Unfortunately for the Reds, pressure and quality finally told and CSKA scored two goals in as many minutes to all but end Cliftonville’s European dream.
On the 72nd minute Brazilian Marquinhos played a marvellous one-two with Emil Kostadinov that had Cliftonville’s defence chasing shadows.
Marquinhos rolled his controlled effort into the net to give the Bulgarian’s a two goal advantage.
It was 3-0 before the Carling Premiership side even had time to catch their breath. This time it
was Rumen Trifonov with a majestic chipped effort from well outside the box that left Connolly helplessly watching the ball float over his head.
A rare Cliftonville attack in the 84th minute lead to the games most controversial moment.
Garrett went in for the ball only for the CSKA keeper Ivan Karadzhov to get there first.
Lithuanian referee Gediminas Mazeika deemed Garrett’s challenge a second bookable offence and sent him off, which will keep him out of the second leg.
The return leg may not carry much relevance now, but perhaps Cliftonville and Portadown’s European successes this season will prove the turning point for local football after more than a decade of disappointment.
CSKA SOFIA: Karadzhov, Vidanov, Stoyanov, Yanchev, Aquaro, Trifonov, Rui Miguel (Iliev 58), Galchev (Yanev 86), Tonev (Kostadinov 70), Minev, Marquinhos. Subs Not Used: Chavdarov, Saidhodzha, Popov, Dechev.
CLIFTONVILLE: Connolly, Ronan Scannell, Barry Holland, Donaghy, McMullan, Chris Scannell (O'Connor 79), Garrett, Hutton, Caldwell, Boyce, Catney. Subs Not Used: McKane, O'Hara, Smyth, Patterson.
Referee: Gediminas Mazeika (Lithuania).