SOFIA (Reuters) - Karim Benzema came off the bench to score 13 minutes from time and ruin any chance of a dream result for resilient Ludogorets as holders Real Madrid carved out a patchy 2-1 win in Wednesday’s Champions League Group B match.
Lively Brazilian midfielder Marcelinho had fired Ludogorets, the Bulgarian club making their home debut in the group stages, into an early lead, prompting the fantasy at the Vasil Levski stadium in Sofia that a footballing fairytale could be in the air.
After eight minutes, Marcelinho had headed home from close range after Sergio Ramos failed to clear Fabio Espinho’s corner, and the home side’s belief grew even stronger when two minutes later, Cristiano Ronaldo had a penalty saved by Vladislav Stoyanov.
The dream did not last long, though. Ronaldo made no mistake when handed another chance to score from the spot 15 minutes later, netting his 69th Champions League goal -- two behind record holder Raul.
Ronaldo was left limping in the final minutes and looked to be in some discomfort after receiving a knock in his left leg following a challenge by Ludogorets midfielder Abel Anicet though coach Carlo Ancelotti said his injury was not serious.
“Cristiano has had a knock,” Ancelotti told reporters after the game at the Vasil Levski national stadium. “It’s painful but nothing serious.”
Real moved on to six points from two games when Benzema finished off a precise left-wing cross by Marcelo.
The hosts, though, gave a fine account of themselves in front of 40,000 vociferous fans.
Ludogorets, who had produced a classy and confident performance at Liverpool two weeks earlier, losing 2-1 after conceding a stoppage-time penalty, came close to scoring on several occasions although Stoyanov was also required to make some good saves after the interval.
Ancelotti left Toni Kroos, James Rodriguez and Benzema on the bench with Isco, Asier Illaramendi and Javier Hernandez replacing them in the starting line-up.
The visitors struggled to build any momentum despite dominating possession with Gareth Bale and Hernandez missing good scoring opportunities.
After Marcelinho’s opener, Hernandez almost got Real back into the game instantly by drawing a penalty on left back Yordan Minev but Stoyanov, who returned after serving a one-match ban, produced a stunning save from Ronaldo.
The Portuguese striker, however, was able to get his revenge less than quarter of an hour later, scoring the second penalty awarded for a foul on him by Cosmin Moti.
Ronaldo, who has been scoring for fun in recent weeks, also saw an effort cleared off the line and a goal disallowed for offside.
Ludogorets refused to surrender following Ronaldo’s equaliser and looked set to take a point from an end-to-end contest.
“We played very well against the best team in the world,” said Ludogorets coach Georgi Dermendzhiev. “We have to regret because we’re calm and confident.”
“I‘m disappointed, we didn’t deserve to lose,” added Ludogorets captain Svetoslav Dyakov.
Bale almost gave Real a lead six minutes after the interval, but Stoyanov saved the Welshman’s header spectacularly.
Ancelotti then had to look to his riches on the substitutes’ bench to secure victory, bringing on Benzema, Kroos and Rodriguez in quick succession.
Benzema sealed a fifth-straight win in all competitions for the Spaniards with a simple finish.
”We showed good intensity and created many chances,“ said Ancelotti. ”We should have scored earlier. We played 4-4-2 with Bale and Isco on the wings and we did well.
“Ludogorets were fast and counter-attacked well. I wanted to rest players like Kroos, James and Karim, who play often and at the same time I wanted to motivate the younger players.”
The match was played at the Vasil Levski national stadium because the Razgrad-based side’s 8,000-capacity Ludogorets arena was not suitable to host such a major game.
Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; editing by Justin Palmer and Ian Chadband