By Rob Harris ,AP
LONDON — Bulgarian club Ludogorets reached the Champions League group stage for the first time Wednesday when a defender saved two penalties in a shootout after the team’s goalkeeper was sent off late in extra time.
On a night when Arsenal, Athletic Bilbao and Bayer Leverkusen all qualified for Europe’s top competition, Ludogorets center back Cosmin Moti upstaged everyone with his heroics in Sofia.
Facing 1986 European champion Steaua Bucharest, Ludogorets had used all three substitutes when goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off for a last-man foul with a minute to go with the match locked at 1-1 on aggregate in extra time.
That meant Moti, a Romanian who used to play for Steaua’s main rival Dinamo Bucharest, was forced into goal. Wearing the shirt of the team’s backup goalkeeper, Moti scored Ludogorets’ first penalty in the shootout before returning to the goal-line to make crucial saves to deny Paul Pirvulescu and Cornel Rapa.
Steaua Bucharest, which reached the round of 16 in 2013, lost the shootout 6-5. Steaua led 1-0 after the first leg and Ludogrets only leveled the aggregate score when Wanderson netted a long-range strike in injury time.
While Arsenal reached the Champions League group stage for the 17th straight year, Swedish champion Malmo joined Ludogorets as newcomers.
Malmo, which reached the European Cup second round in 1990 in the pre-Champions League era, will be Sweden’s first group stage representative in 14 years after beating Salzburg 3-0 to advance 4-2 on aggregate.
Arsenal relied on Alexis Sanchez scoring his first goal since joining from Barcelona last month to squeeze past Besiktas 1-0 and held on with 10 men for the last 15 minutes.
Arsenal, which drew the first leg 0-0, has been in the group stage every season since 1998-99, and Athletic Bilbao is back for the first time since then after beating Napoli 3-1 to go through 4-2 on aggregate.
There was no shock in Germany, with Bayer Leverkusen routing FC Copenhagen 4-0 after winning 3-2 away.