The Jose Alvelade Stadium in Lisbon is the venue for the second of today’s Group C matches and features Bulgaria and Sweden.
The Bulgarians will be eager to avenge the 4-0 thrashing at the hands of the Swedes in the third placed playoff game at the 1994 World Cup. The teams have met twice since then, with both games 1-0 victories for Sweden in the qualifying round for Euro 2000.
The Bulgarian FA are planning a national celebration to mark the 10 year anniversary of their semi final spot in the USA, and the Bulgarian camp both past and present are quietly confident of a run to the knockout stages of Euro 2004 to coincide with the planned festivities.
“We will get our own back,” remarks 1994 skipper Hristo Stoichkov, undisputedly Bulgaria’s greatest ever player. “And we will qualify for the second round.”
Sweden have not won any of their last four European Championship Finals games, and with striker Henrik Larsson reversing his decision to quit international football, they will be equally determined to get their campaign off to a winning start. With Italy expected to take three points from Denmark earlier in the day, the winner of this match may well have one foot in the knockout phase.
A new generation of Bulgarian talent has enabled their coach, Plamen Markov, to rebuild the team. Drafted in after his country’s failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, Markov has used the emergence of a second generation of talented players to shape his own squad. Markov has successfully weathered the storm of criticism that marked his appointment and his youthful squad surpassed his expectations to finish top of their qualifying group, ahead of the likes of Croatia and Belgium.
Leading this group of young players is Bayer Leverkusen striker Dimitar Berbatov who, like Stoichkov before him, is fast becoming the icon and talisman of his national team. The tall and powerful striker averages more than a goal every two matches for his country but insists comparisons with the great Stoichkov are wide of the mark.
“I view being labelled the new Stoichkov as an honour,” he said.
“He’s an idol of Bulgarian football and a symbol of success in my country. His name will be forever linked to the greatest achievements of our national team. But I don’t think I can be compared to him. I’m a central striker while he was at his best when attacking in the left-hand channel.”
While Berbatov will be the main focal point for Bulgaria, there are several other foreign-based players at Markov’s disposal. Celtic’s Stilian Petrov is arguably the most high profile. Despite still being only 24 the skipper will pass the 50 cap mark for his country during this tournament and will be relied upon to organise and galvanise from midfield. His ability in dead ball situations will also be crucial to Markov and his team.
Midfield anchorman Marian Hristov of German club Wolfsburg, an international for eight years, will offer the defence protection and has made the role his own despite a long history of injury problems. His fitness will be important to the Bulgarians if they are to progress to the knockout stages.
Georgi Peev, of Dynamo Kiev will be asked to provide much of the width and flair, and along with Petrov will be responsible for providing the bulk of Berbatov’s ammunition. His performances in the qualifiers has led to interest from clubs in England and Spain. Originally a striker, he was converted by Kiev into a midfielder by the late and legendary coach Valery Lobanovsky.
Bulgaria are a strong team defensively and their 4-5-1 formation will be employed to make them difficult to beat rather than spectacular going forward. The left back Ivailo Petkov and their goalkeeper Zdravko Zdravkov are their two most experienced players and Markov will be looking to them for organisation and solidarity. The midfield will be tight, but their technical ability and comfort on the ball will certainly result in a chance or two for Berbatov and others breaking forward.
Markov is philosophical about his team’s chances (a recent 3-1 defeat by the Czech Republic has dampened his optimism), and has applied pressure to Denmark and Sweden, who he ranks behind Italy as the leading contenders for second spot. It is clear that he fears injuries almost more than his opponents, citing his first choice eleven as extremely capable but the squad’s depth as a whole somewhat lacking.
“We have a limited number of players who qualified Bulgaria for the European finals,” he said. “We are not like other teams whose replacements in case of injuries are as good as the first choice players. That is probably why we are considered in the outsiders group, which is good for us. I think we do know everything about Sweden though – their strengths and their weaknesses.”
Despite the manager’s caution, the players remain upbeat – certainly about tonight’s game, which offers the Bulgarians a chance for revenge.
“Six years ago when we lost 1-0 against Sweden in Burgas in a Euro 2000 qualifier we were going through a change of generations,” midfielder Hristov argues. “Now, we’re a completely different side.”
In spite of their recent superiority over the Bulgarians, Sweden will go into this evening’s game in the midst of a four game winless run at the finals. What is even more striking is the fact that they have gone eight consecutive opening games without winning at major tournaments, a sequence that goes back nearly 50 years. The last time the Swedes won on the first night was way back in 1958, when as hosts they defeated Mexico 3-0 in the World Cup.
Joint coaches Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg have been in charge for seven years, fully imposing themselves and their style on the squad. They promised to build around the traditional Swedish footballing values of high work rate and team work, relying on the occasional flash of brilliance from Henrik Larsson or the unpredictable Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The coaches appear to be confident ahead of this evening’s game, and claim that all their preparations have gone smoothly.
“Everything has gone very well thus far and we have pretty much achieved everything we set out to do ahead of the game,” reports Lagerback. “All the players have done very well in training and I believe that we will all be up for the task.”
The return of Larsson (scorer of five goals in five starts against Bulgaria) to the international fold after a two year exile is of particular significance, especially for a side that has been short of invention and goals in recent times. It gives the Swedes a chance to field a potentially explosive strike partnership of Larsson and Ibrahimovic, and the significance of Larsson’s presence has not been lost on his young strike partner. Their partnership is seen by many as perhaps the most explosive at the finals.
“I am very happy that he has come back to play,” the young Ajax striker reports of his team-mate. “He is capable of a very high level of performance. Most important for us though, is that he scores goals. Give him ten chances and he will score nine goals. He also has lots of experience. The UEFA Cup final, the UEFA finals, the Champions League, he knows them all.”
The Swedes are again impressive in midfield, provided Frederik Ljungberg can put an indifferent season with Arsenal behind him. If he finds his best form then he remains, with Larsson, the Swedes’ best player. If Sweden are to live up to the billing of dark horses then Ljungberg will need to be at his very best. He is likely to be partnered tonight and throughout the tournament by the industrious Tobias Linderoth and the skillful Kim Kallstrom, who is widely tipped in Sweden to have a similar impact on this tournament as Tomas Brolin in 1992.
A clever scheming midfielder with two good feet, now is the time for Kallstrom to make the jump from promising youngster to fully fledged top class international. If Kallstrom can achieve this and Ljungberg shows his form of eighteen months ago, then going forward the Swedes look like one of the competition’s better sides.
In defence Sweden will be organised and led by their impressive skipper, Olof Mellberg. Coming off his best ever season in the English Premiership, Mellberg will be under more pressure than usual in a relatively inexperienced back four. First choice goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson is only 22 and plays in Sweden, though his vastly experienced back up is 54 cap Magnus Hedman.
The Swedes remain bullish ahead of tonight’s game. Widely tipped to make their mark at Euro 2000, they fell short spectacularly.
“I think we’ve learned from Euro 2000,” says Ljungberg. “I think then we trained too hard and were a bit nervous – it was a huge disappointment. We’re just going to say we can qualify from the group. I think we can upset some of the big teams.”
So, will Bulgaria end their jinx against the Swedes and avenge the USA 1994 defeat ? Or will Sweden win their first opening match of a tournament since 1958 ? The superior quality of the squad suggests the Swedes will win, but Bulgaria’s pragmatism and organisation may make them hard to break down. The return of Larsson could just make the difference.
Bulgaria (probable): Zdravkov; Ivalio Petkov, Pazin, Kirilov, Ivanov; Milen Petkov, Stilian Petrov, Hristov, Peev; Jankovic; Berbatov
Sweden (probable): Isaksson; Lucic, Jakobsson, Mellberg, Edman; Nilsson, Linderoth, Kallstrom, Ljungberg; Ibrahimovic, Larsson
Referee: Mike Riley (Eng)