By Simon Hart & Kadira Malkoc
On the evidence of Saturday, Bulgaria are beginning to lay the ghosts of their recent past.
Eleven months after their 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign ended in humiliation with a 6-0 defeat by the Czech Republic, they made an impressive start to their EURO 2004™ programme by winning 2-0 in Belgium.
'A very important victory'
The victory raised hopes that Bulgaria may have found a crop of players able to achieve qualification for a major tournament for the first time since France 98. Coach Plamen Markov, who replaced Stoicho Mladenov after the Czech débâcle, said: "We have achieved a very important victory. We have responded to criticism at home and played especially well in the midfield with clever and quick counterattacks.
"We went to Brussels to show that we could play football at a European level. I think that all teams in our group - Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia and Estonia - have an equal chance of qualifying for EURO 2004."
Both Bulgarian goals came on the break. Zoran Jankovic, a naturalised Yugoslavian, scored the first from a Martin Petrov cross on 17 minutes. The second came shortly after the hour from a deflected Stilian Petrov free-kick following another fast counter-thrust. The win followed an encouraging 2-2 draw with World Cup runners-up Germany in a Sofia friendly last month.
Bulgaria's squad may not have the household names of the side of the Nineties - when the likes of Hristo Stoichkov, Iordan Letchkov and Emil Kostadinov led them to the last four of USA 94 - but Mladenov has integrated a number of exciting youngsters into the squad to good effect.
The 44-year-old former national team midfield player has retained only one player from the old, golden generation, in the 36-year-old playmaker Krassimir Balakov. Stoichkov departed during the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign and in his place in attack now are the talented Petrovs - Stilian the Celtic FC forward, and Martin who plays for VfL Wolfsburg.
Then there are the side's three adopted Yugoslavians - Predrag Pazhin, Zlatomir Zagorcic and Jankovic, scorer of the opening goal in Brussels. Zagorcic, now back at PFC Litex Lovech after a spell in Switzerland, returned to the squad after a two-year absence for the Belgium game and made a late substitute's appearance.
Centre of attention
Also back after a shorter absence was AEK Athens FC's midfield player Milen Petkov, who refused to join the tour of the United States earlier this year. However, the current centre of attention is PFC Levski Sofia striker Georgi Chilikov, who made his debut as a 77th-minute substitute after being called up following injuries to Dimitar Berbatov and Georgi Ivanov.
The former Under-21 international caught Markov's eye with two successive hat-tricks in the Bulgarian Premier League, that left him top of the scorers' chart and suggested he is beginning to realise the potential that persuaded Levski to spend a record €1.2m to sign him from FC Neftochimik last year.
Looking the part
He took time to win over the Levski supporters but is now beginning to look the part. Look the part is precisely what Bulgaria did on Saturday but goalkeeper Zdravko Zdravkov warned that they have done nothing yet.
Croatia at home on next month will offer a stern test, as Zdravkov said: "We kept out concentration with a good tactical plan and we deserved to win. But we have to be very careful ahead of the match against the Croats."
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