By Simon Hart
Europe has yet to see the best of Bulgaria. That is the view of their coach, Plamen Markov, whose young side are preparing to face Croatia in Saturday's EURO 2004™ qualifier in Sofia.
'Good young players'
Despite underlining their potential with a 2-0 win in Belgium in their Group 8 opener, Markov remained cautious about their prospects ahead of the visit of a Croatia team keen to make amends after a goalless home draw with Estonia. "We've got some very good young players, but they haven't become stars yet, they need perhaps a couple more years to develop," Markov told uefa.com. "They haven't yet reached their peak.
"It's true that we've started the qualifying campaign well, but we're a team in the process of developing after the fine generation of players we had before, especially at the [FIFA] World Cup in the United States in 1994. We've begun well, but we've got difficult matches ahead, starting with Croatia."
Bright young things
Markov's bright young things include forwards Stilian and Martin Petrov, who play abroad with Celtic FC and VfL Wolfsburg respectively. PFC Levski Sofia's Georgi Chilikov, another striker, made his debut as a late substitute against Belgium, while the in-form PFC CSKA Sofia pair of Svetoslav Petrov and Velizar Dimitrov are also pushing for inclusion.
However, Markov does have concerns over his oldest head, captain Krassimir Balakov, who is a doubt after injuring stomach muscles. One thing that is certain, though, is that the newly renovated Vasil Levski stadium will be a 43,500 sell-out for what Markov considers "a very important match for both teams".
'Difficult for us'
He added: "It will be difficult for us, Croatia drew against Estonia in their opening match but that doesn't mean anything, because they have quality players who play in different leagues across Europe. For me, it is important that we don't play badly and that we give our best. I want us to prove to Europe that football in Bulgaria can't be discounted."
There is no chance of Markov's Croatian counterpart, Otto Baric, discounting the Bulgarians, whom he considers "favourites for this match". However, after the disappointing draw with Estonia, Baric knows an improved performance is needed on Saturday. "Croatia can and must produce better results," he said. "I hope we will prove this in Sofia. We are looking to win, although a draw would not be a failure."
Baric welcomes back for this match Juventus FC defender Igor Tudor - missing since before the World Cup through injury - and the experienced midfield player Mario Stanic. He also has Alen Boksic at his disposal for the first time since taking charge and there is a new face in NK Dinamo Zagreb winger Mihael Mikic. "We are missing only one player, defender Josip Simunic, and I have everyone else I need," said Baric.
In the weekend's other Group 8 match, Belgium visit Andorra. In their last UEFA European Championship qualifying campaign, Andorra failed to collect a single point and a 3-0 defeat in Iceland last month does not augur well either, although the Belgians' preparations have not been helped by injuries to Mbo Mpenza and Gaétan Englebert.
This leaves coach Aimé Anthuenis without a recognised right midfield player and may prompt a switch from 4-4-2 to 4-3-1-2 with a possible free role for new boy Thomas Buffel. There is nothing new about the three-man midfield who would operate behind Buffel, however: Yves Vanderhaeghe, Walter Baseggio and Bart Goor were Anthuenis's chosen midfield three at RSC Anderlecht.
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