By Mark Robinson
The second round of Euro 2004 Group C matches begin with Bulgaria taking on Denmark this afternoon at Braga’s Estadio Municipal.
Denmark impressively held group favourites Italy to a 0-0 in their opening game on Monday, while Bulgaria were on the receiving end of a 5-0 hammering by Sweden.
Both sides will be looking to take all three points this afternoon ahead of the final group games next Tuesday. Bulgaria need three points to put themselves back into contention, while a win for Denmark will take some of the heat and pressure out of their final group match with traditional Scandinavian rivals Sweden.
In six competitive matches between the two nations, Denmark hold a slender advantage with two wins and three draws, while the Bulgarians have triumphed just once. This afternoon’s encounter in Braga will be the first at the European Championship finals between the two nations.
Much will depend on whether Bulgaria coach Plamen Markov has been able to lift his players following the demoralising 5-0 defeat by the Swedes in Lisbon. Markov, who at 46 is the second youngest coach at the finals, will have been working hard with his staff to restore his squad’s shattered morale.
The 5-0 scoreline was certainly flattering to the Swedes and, until Henrik Larsson netted Sweden’s second goal just before the hour mark, the Bulgarians were always a threat. Markov and his staff have been keen to emphasise this point to their players in the build up to this afternoon’s clash.
Markov, who rejected reports of in-fighting among his players after the Sweden defeat, claims he is unlikely to make sweeping changes for today’s game. The Bulgarians looking to a change of mentality and style rather than personnel.
“There will be no major changes to the starting eleven,” he explained.
“Against Sweden we tried to play some good passing football but, of course, our tactics were not to lose 5-0. At Euro 2004 the more pragmatic and defensive football has so far been the winning style, and the result is all important.”
“I would prefer to win with boring football than to lose in a spectacular way like we did against Sweden. We felt exhausted after 60 minutes, but now we must control ourselves so we can be in good shape for the whole game.”
Ten years ago at the 1994 World Cup in the USA, the Bulgarians lost their opening game 3-0 to Nigeria before re-grouping and making a successful charge to the semi finals. It is a point not lost on Markov’s squad as they try to look ahead with optimism.
“Nobody believed Bulgaria would reach the semi finals in 1994 after their opening result,” defender Ilian Stoianov told the media on Wednesday.
“Obviously we have started with a bad result against against Sweden, but the achievements of the 1994 squad are serving as our motivation.”
Stoianov may be the only change to Markov’s line up this afternoon. He did not feature against Sweden, but fellow centre half Predrag Pazin of FC Shaktar Donesk is struggling with an ankle injury and may not be fit in time to face the Danes. Stoinaov will be the obvious deputy if Pazin fails to make the starting eleven.
The other main injury doubt surrounds midfield anchor man Marian Hristov of German club Kaiserslauten, who has a slight muscle strain. He is, however, expected to start.
Markhov claims that the Danes, who welcome back Thomas Gravesen from suspension and Jesper Gronkjaer from compassionate leave, will be in an even stronger position than when they played Italy. The coach is in no doubt as to the quality that Denmark possess throughout their squad.
“Their (Gravesen and Gronkjaer) inclusion will not change the tactical system but, with them, Denmark will be even stronger,” he warned.
“In some respects the Danes are stronger even than the Swedes. They have players like Jon Dahl Tomasson, Thomas Helveg, Martin Laursen and Martin Jorgensen, who are playing at top European sides.”
Star striker Dimitar Berbatov of Bayer Leverkusen will continue in his role as lone striker, and will again be offered support from midfield by Zoran Jankovic. Berbatov is typically confident ahead of today’s clash and Markov will be hoping that the optimism of his team’s talisman will spread to the rest of his players.
“It was a disastrous result against Sweden,” said Berbatov on Wednesday afternoon.
“But we have to pick ourselves up and we can show the world we can play good football. I’m really determined to score some goals in this game.”
The mood in the Denmark camp has been far more relaxed after they earned many plaudits for their performance in the draw with Italy.
Despite the upbeat mood, coach Morten Olsen has warned his players that they will face a tough test today and that the Bulgarians should not be underestimated. Many observers have dismissed Bulgaria’s chances of qualification but not Olsen, whose team have once again been training behind closed doors.
“I thought that the Bulgarians were the better team until Sweden killed the game with their second goal,” Olsen said.
“They have just as good a chance as we do,” he warned. “I expect them to come out and really attack us from the first whistle.”
With a full squad to choose from, Olsen realises that he faces some difficult decisions in deciding his starting eleven.
“I must admit, it is hard to name the team,” he revealed to the media. “Now that Gronkjaer is here we can pick from all the shelves, so to speak.”
Despite Olsen’s reluctance to change the team that fared so well against the Italians, it is widely expected that Gravesen will get the vote ahead of Daniel Jensen in central midfield and Dennis Rommedahl may make way for Gronkjaer on the right wing. If this is the case, then Rommedahl in particular can consider himself unlucky after showing flashes of his superb 2002 World Cup form against the Italians.
Gravesen should partner Christian Poulsen in the heart of the Danish midfield. Poulsen made the headlines this week after video evidence showed him to be the victim of a spitting incident involving Italy’s Francesco Totti, who has subsequently been handed a three-match ban from UEFA.
Gronkjaer is ready for the challenge, and claims that he has already acclimatised to the conditions despite only joining the squad on Tuesday following the sad death of his mother.
“I feel I have adjusted to the heat already,” he said.
“I have been told by my team-mates that it is even warmer in the north, where we play on Friday, but I feel ready for that too.”
While midfield appears something of a conundrum for Olsen, the strikers and defenders almost pick themselves after their success against the Italians. Martin Laursen was particularly effective against Italy, and he will be partnered again by Thomas Helveg, Rene Henriksen and Niclas Jensen. Thomas Sorensen of Aston Villa, who made several crucial saves on Monday, is the undisputed first choice between the posts.
Ebbe Sand and Jon Dahl Tomasson of Milan will continue in attack, with Tomasson occupying the space in front of the opposition back four just behind the free scoring Sand. The Milan striker is certainly buoyant ahead of tonight’s game, where he has urged his team-mates to prove to the world that the performance and result against Italy was no fluke.
“Everyone who has seen us play, and people who know football, know that we are a good team with a good squad of players,” said the former Newcastle United striker.
“When you can control the match against a team like Italy, as we did on Monday, the clearly we are doing something well. We must prove that we can do it again.”
Bulgaria (probable): Zdravkov; Borimirov, Stoianov, Kirilov, Petkov; Peev, Hristov, S Petrov, M Petrov; Jankovic; Berbatov
Denmark (probable): Sorensen; Helveg, Laursen, Henriksen, N Jensen; Gronkjaer, Gravesen, Poulsen, Jorgensen; Tomasson, Sand
Referee: L Batista (Por)