Fresh from wrapping up an 11th national title, Russian manager Vladimir Latunov was back on the move in December 2038. He moved from Belarus to Bulgaria as he swiftly took the reins at CSKA Sofia and didn’t waste any time stamping his authority on his new club.
Who are CSKA-Sofia?
CSKA-Sofia – previously known as CSKA Sofia and not to be confused with CSKA 1948 Sofia, which was founded in 2016 – is one of the most famous clubs in Bulgarian football. Founded in 1948 by an army officers’ club, hence the Central Sports Club of the Army abbreviation and the Armeytsite nickname – CSKA counts Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov among its club legends.
CSKA has a record 32 national titles, of which the most recent was in 2025 and only one has been since 2008. It’s also finished runner-up 37 times, of which 10 are during this save. CSKA also have 20 Bulgarian Cup wins. Interestingly, Ludogorets have won every single title during this save and since 2011, bar Levski in 2024 and CSKA in 2025 – in other words, they’ve won the last 13!
The club has superb training facilities, excellent youth facilities and exceptional youth recruitment. It’s the second favourite for the Bulgarian title but somehow languishes in eighth place of the 14-team league, 12 points off the top after 18 games. The board expects a top-six finish this season then to challenge for the title next season and gave Latunov a £5.8 million transfer kitty to work with.
Meet the CSKA-Sofia squad
The best player at the club is apparently left-back Grigor Madzhirov, closely followed by Romanian midfielder Madalin Dima. Other than that, there didn’t seem too much to shout about and there was plenty of deadwood that needed moving on. But exciting young talents included midfielders Vasil Velkov and Yordan Syurdzhiev and winger Mihail Nikolov. The squad also included Latunov’s former Nitra attacker Vladimir Danko.
Massive player turnover
The good news was that CSKA didn’t have a league match for nearly two months during the Bulgarian winter break. He began by selling 12 players which, largely thanks to China, raised an additional £9 million in funds. That was before Dinamo Zagreb came in with a ridiculous £10 million offer for Dima, which became a new club record sale.
Latunov swiftly set about bringing in new signings, which proved a little more difficult than he’d expected. However, the headline was reuniting with legend of the save Sandro Luiz. Now 33, the striker Latunov managed at Honvéd and Plzen was available on a free after 10 years in Brazil and will provide much needed attacking depth.
Latunov went straight back to Minsk to snap up Dmitriy Smirnov for £400,000. He also added much-needed midfield talent in Bosnian Aleksander Kisic for £350,000 and exciting backup goalkeeper Evgeniy Kutsepalov for £170,000. He also snapped up holding midfielder Raílson on a free transfer.
He replaced Dima by going to his former club FCSB to sign Bulgarian winger Yavor Kaymakanski. Then he went to Argentina and paid River Plate a combined £3 million for 18-year-old centre-back Carlos López, who Latunov intended to retrain as a right-back, and winger Lucas Linares, who’s considered the best prospect at the club. He also signed another former player in Celje centre-back Samo Oblak, who became the club’s best defender, for £400,000. However, one stickler could be matchday squads not being allowed more than three non-EU players…
That represented a fairly significant turnover in January 2039, so Latunov wasn’t expecting miracles from his makeshift new team. He initially planned to use a 4-3-3 formation along with a variation on his favoured 4-2-4.
Exciting start to life in Bulgaria
Latunov’s CSKA reign began in the Bulgarian First League Preliminary Phase with a trip to city rivals 11th-place Lokomotiv. They started well but missed chances and allowed Lokomotiv to score against the run of play. Latunov made a double sub and switched to 4-2-4, and both replacements had an immediate impact. Nikolov flicked home a near-post corner for the equaliser three minutes into his first-ever senior match then, with three minutes remaining, Velkov sent Sandro Luiz to score the winner on debut. And the Brazilian’s legendary status was immediately rediscovered!
A first home game saw Belasitsa visit a snowy Balgarska Armiya. It also started poorly as CSKA conceded inside three minutes before the visitors missed a penalty. And that proved crucial as Danko equalised in first half injury-time. A stern half-time talking to did the trick as young striker Rumen Dimitrov came off the bench to score seven minutes into his debut then left-winger Ivo Valchev and Sandro Luiz, starting this time, scored late on to wrap up a 4-1 thumping.
They then faced a tough test at surprise leaders Beroe, whose only league title was way back in 1986. CSKA started brightly this time as a lovely Sandro Luiz pass freed Danko to coolly finish after 12 minutes and he doubled his tally five minutes later. Beroe were given a penalty completely against the run of play then scored a screamer to equalise on 32 minutes but Sandro Luiz laid the ball off for Smirnov to slam home his first for the club and make it 3-2 before half-time. Beroe dominated after the break and got a deserved equaliser but CSKA held on for a crazy 3-3. Sandro Luiz, by the way, already has more assists this season than he managed in 129 appearances in his previous three seasons!
A two-week break gave Latunov a chance to drill his tactics into his players. His second home game was up against another local side fifth-place Septemvri Sofia. Danko continued his fine form with a third-minute penalty then slammed home a great finish five minutes into the second half and Valchev scored again for a superb 3-0 win.
Another tough test took them to fourth-place Pirin Blagoevgrad and another great start saw Danko tuck home another penalty on nine minutes. Pirin responded but a brilliant Velkov pass picked out Smirnov to coolly restore the lead five minutes later. Nothing happened after the break and CSKA celebrated a huge 2-1 success.
Latunov’s first five games in charge saw four wins and a draw, with 14 scored and six conceded. In the first 18 games, CSKA had only scored 21 and conceded 21! As a result, they’d shot up the table to fourth.
Having beaten the teams up at the top of the league, CSKA then struggled to a 1-1 draw at bottom of the league Sportist Svoge. A third successive away game saw the defence fall apart to lose 3-0 at Slavia Sofia. But they bounced back to finish the preliminary phase finished with a 3-0 win at home to fifth-place Botev Plovdiv led by a Danko brace.
That ensured CSKA finished fourth, which meant they entered the Championship phase, in which the top six all play each other once. The title race, by the way, seems to be over as Ludogorets have won their last 11 matches to turn a six-point deficit into a seven-point lead.
The toughest game came first as Latunov played his first game against perennial champions Ludogorets. The visitors scored after 43 seconds and dominated the early stages but CSKA grew into the game, equalised through Smirnov and held on for an undeserved draw to halt the leaders’ winning run.
Another trip to Pirin saw Danko power home a header to cancel out a Pirin free-kick before a late Sandro Luiz and Danko double strike downed Slavia 2-0 away. Their final home game ended 0-0 against Beroe on Latunov’s 55th birthday.
The campaign concluded with Latunov’s first “Eternal Derby” clash at Levski Sofia. Both sides wasted chances before the hosts scored in first half injury-time. CSKA responded after the break as 18-year-old winger Adnan Jahic raced through for his first senior goal with 12 minutes goal and nick a hard-earned point.
That ensured CSKA finished the campaign in fourth place, having been eighth in December. They were some way off the top three but the positive was they avoid the distraction of European football next season. However, Danko finished as the league’s top scorer with 15 goals in 29 games, 10 of which were during Latunov’s reign.
Latunov certainly improved CSKA in the second half of the season, picking up 31 points in 13 games compared to the 25 points they managed in the first 18 games. He also got the best out of Danko, who scored 18 in total and finished the campaign with 10 goals in 12 games.
Valchev was the second-top scorer with 12 in 38 as well as a club-high eight assists but missed the last six games through injury. Smirnov scored four in 13 and was poor at the end of the season, while the legendary Sandro Luiz played well with three goals and four assists in eight games. Velkov showed glimpses of promise but needs to be more consistent despite winning the fans’ player and young player of the season.
That said, there was plenty of room for improvement but Latunov will have a healthy transfer kitty to work with in the summer.
The CSKA youth intake produced three very exciting youngsters, of which the pick was striker Hristiyan Vitanov who’s already the fifth-best striker at the club. So Latunov promoted him straight into the first team. CSKA’s under 19s squad also won the U19 Elite Group, which shows there’s plenty of talent at the club.
Join us next time as Vladimir Latunov sets about strengthening CSKA-Sofia to challenge the top three in Bulgaria!