By Eduard Nisenboim & Stoyan Georgiev
Potential UEFA EURO 2004™ dark horses Bulgaria and Russia meet in Sofia on Wednesday evening.
For the Russians the game is particularly crucial as it is their first international since November 2003 when they beat Wales 1-0 to seal play-off victory and a place in Portugal. Although a squad of domestic-based players toured Japan in February, drawing with Japan's Under-23 side and club side Shimizu S-Pulse, the Russians were the only of the 16 finalists not to play on 18 February and will be keen to shake off any cobwebs.
Coach Georgi Yartsev certainly believes Bulgaria will provide a good test. "[A few years ago] Bulgarian football was at a low point, but this team is very strong and plays modern football," he said. "I think [Dimitar] Berbatov is a real star."
Newcomers given chance
Yartsev has two newcomers in his squad, both of whom were part of the Far East excursion - FC Rubin Kazan midfield player Roman Sharonov and FC Zenit St. Peterburg winger Vladimir Bystrov. "Both of them played very well in Japan," Yartsev said. "They have also made good starts in the [league] championship as did [Igor] Semshov who deserved his recall."
FC Lokomotiv Moskva player Marat Izmailov misses the game through injury while several familiar faces have been rested to allow Yartsev to check on fringe contenders. "I know [Evgeni] Aldonin, [Valeri] Essipov and [Andrei] Kariaka quite well," he said.
Competition for places
"The last two played in Japan and I've seen them playing in the league. There is no point taking them away from their clubs. I want to give a chance to others - if their performances are good enough there will be more competition for places in the squad."
With several relatively untested figures in line to play, Yartsev admits the side may not gel. "The team could play badly because some players don't know each other but I hope they fight hard for victory," he said.
As for Bulgaria, the first qualifiers to book their place in Portugal, they will be looking to bounce back from a 2-0 defeat in Greece in February that dampened some of the euphoria engendered by qualification.
"We did not play well in Athens," coach Plamen Markov admitted. "Now we have to improve. There is not much time left until EURO 2004™. We have to start playing as we did in the qualifiers."
Duo not fit
Despite recent club comebacks, forwards Svetoslav Todorov of Portsmouth FC and Vladimir Manchev of Lille OSC have not been selected. "I am in constant contact with them and they are still not fully fit," Markov said.
The coach is likely to resist experimenting and pick his strongest eleven. His only concern is at right-back, where Elin Topuzakov of PFC Levski Sofia is hoping to fill the void left after the international retirement of Radostin Kishishev - Martin Stankov, Daniel Borimirov and Nikolai Krustev have all failed to impress in this role in the past.
'Strong and solid'
"Russia are a very strong and solid side," Markov continued. "And we need to play against strong sides to prepare for the finals." The last time the two countries met in Sofia was in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in September 1997 which the Bulgarians won.
Looking to the future
Just three Bulgarians remain in the squad from that encounter - a graphic demonstration of how Markov's side have left the past behind in order to prepare for the future.
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