Goals from Martin Petrov and Dimitar Berbatov gave Bulgaria a 2-0 victory against Estonia in Sofia in their final UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifier on home soil to retain their advantage at the top of Group 8. Plamen Markov's side will now secure at least a play-off spot with victory in Andorra on Wednesday.
With midfielder Daniel Borimirov in the right-back berth vacated by Radostin Kishishev, who has retired from international football, and PFC CSKA Sofia's Velizar Dimitrov in right midfield, Bulgaria began brightly. Estonia goalkeeper Mart Poom had already saved brilliantly from Berbatov's header before Martin Petrov opened the scoring with a powerful shot on 16 minutes after fine play from Dimitrov and Zoran Jankovic.
But Estonia, who were mostly occupied in defence, then missed two great openings within a minute. First, Kristen Viikmäe failed to take advantage of goalkeeper Dimitar Ivankov's poor clearance, although the latter did make amends with a fine stop. Then, from the resulting corner, Bulgaria somehow survived a goalmouth scramble.
In the second half, home coach Markov's decision to push Borimirov into midfield paid dividends as Bulgaria extended their lead through Berbatov's well-taken goal on 66 minutes. Estonia suffered another blow when striker Andres Oper was sent off for a late challenge on Ilian Stoianov. With the game over as a contest, Bulgaria then went close to a third as Marian Hristov missed an open goal.
The win kept Bulgaria a point clear of Croatia, who defeated Andorra tonight. "The most important thing was the win," said Markov. "The pressure was on as we had to win to maintain our chances of finishing in the top two. We made some mistakes and Estonia played very well, but we won. Now we go to Andorra and we have to stay focused. A win there will guarantee at least a play-off spot."
Defeat for Estonia meant they cannot now qualify for the Portugal finals. Their coach, Arno Pijpers, said: "Bulgaria have a very good side and a good chance of reaching the finals. Now we have only one game left against Belgium and we would like to prove in that game that Estonia are on the rise."