As the countdown to UEFA EURO 2004™ gathers pace, uefa.com considers what the coming months might hold for the 16 finalists. Today we look at Bulgaria.
By Stoyan Georgiev
After the celebrations comes the uncertainty for Bulgaria coach Plamen Markov.
Bulgaria began the EURO 2004™ qualifiers in the wake of a 6-0 humbling in their last 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic. During the course of qualifying, captain Krassimir Balakov and defender Radostin Kishishev both retired but still they managed to finish above Croatia and Belgium to win a UEFA European Championship qualifying group for the first time since 1968.
However, Markov now has a few headaches as he looks ahead to Portugal and Bulgaria's first European Championship finals since 1996. The area causing him most worry is his defence. First, his reliable goalkeeper Zdravko Zdravkov is unsettled at Turkey's Istanbulspor AS a year after beginning his third spell with the club.
At right-back Markov has yet to settle on a replacement for Kishishev. Martin Stankov filled the vacancy first, then Daniel Borimirov. But Borimov's failure to hold down a place at TSV 1860 München this season means he has now decided to return to PFC Levski Sofia - alongside Stankov. As he admitted: "I need first-team football." The same could be said for left-back Ivailo Petkov, out of favour at Fenerbahçe SK.
Markov has better options in central defence. Rossen Kirilov and Predrag Pazhin are both having good seasons at PFC Litex Lovech and FC Shakhtar Donetsk respectively. Zhivko Zhelev, meanwhile, has attracted attention from ambitious Russian side FC Torpedo-Metallurg Moskva, but is staying put at Litex. Iliyan Stoyanov can also provide cover in the centre and seems to be on the road to recovery after his recent groin problems.
The form of his midfield players will also give Markov heart. Balakov may no longer be there but new captain Stilian Petrov of Celtic FC, 1. FC Kaiserslautern's Marian Hristov and FC Dynamo Kyiv's Georgi Peev are all playing well for their clubs. Up front his best source of goals in qualifying was Bayer 04 Leverkusen's Dimitar Berbatov, who scored five times, while he will also look to VfL Wolfsburg's Martin Petrov and Vladimir Manchev of Lille OSC.
Portsmouth FC striker Svetoslav Todorov, meanwhile, has yet to play this term due to a cruciate ligament injury but has not given up hope of returning before the season's end. Also hoping to play his way back into the team is Zoran Jankovic, who has returned to Litex from China with a view to impressing Markov. "I need to be in Bulgaria and to play here," said the striker. "I need to be in top shape for the finals. It will be much easier for the coach Plamen Markov to watch me play here than in China."
Certainly, Markov will be watching closely over the next few months. Greece, Russia and Cameroon currently comprise his side's warm-up programme, but he knows only the best form will ensure any return in Portugal against Group C opponents Italy, Sweden and Denmark.
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