Bulgaria suffered the first frustration of their UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign as they were held by a brave Estonia side in front of 4,000 fans in the A Le Coq Arena in Tallinn.
Although Plamen Markov’s side lost their 100 per cent record in the qualifiers, they maintained their position at the top of Group 8. In freezing temperatures, Estonia had looked to sharpen their attacking edge by recalling Andres Oper to the starting lineup; the talented Aalborg BK striker had scored both Estonia’s late goals in the 2-1 friendly victory over Canada on Saturday as a substitute.
Poom the hero
But it was not to be Oper’s day. Instead it was Estonian goalkeeper Mart Poom who would prove the hero, as he repeatedly denied the Bulgarians in a battling second-half display, and came out of the game with an impressive clean sheet against the group leaders.
Estonia started the game brightly and had some good early chances. The game was played at a high tempo from the kick-off and with the Bulgarians struggling to settle, Oper looked threatening. This early dominance was not converted into the chances coach Arno Pijpers would have liked, and the visitors soon took the game by the scruff of the neck.
With the game drifting toward half-time, Bulgaria had the best chance of the match. The ball found its way to Martin Petrov, who was unmarked with only Poom to beat. However, the striker stepped on the ball in his effort to control it and Poom rushed out to smother the chance.
The second half saw Bulgaria tighten their grip, but the profligacy of their forwards cost them what had looked like a certain three points. Indeed Markov had said before the game that anything but victory would be a complete failure. The stubbornness of Poom and the Estonia back-line proved too much for Dimitar Berbatov and Zoran Jankovic, and the latter was duly replaced by Portsmouth FC striker Svetoslav Todorov at the break.
The draw gave Estonia only their second point of this qualification campaign but it was a momentous match for the hosts’ midfield player Marko Kristal, who won his 126th cap. He has now moved level with legends Paolo Maldini and Andoni Zubizarreta and there are only three more-capped Europeans ahead of him: Lothar Matthäus (150), Thomas Ravelli (143) and Peter Schmeichel (129).