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Bulgaria and Sweden, two teams who regard teamwork and diligent tactical planning as central characteristics to their game plan, will lock horns at Lisbon's Estádio José Alvalade, both hoping to end unenviable records.
Sweden will attempt to overcome traditional first-night nerves as they seek to end a sequence of eight matches without victory in their opening match in an international tournament. The last occasion the Swedes recorded a victory came in the 1958 FIFA World Cup when they ran out comfortable 3-0 winners against Mexico.
Bulgaria, for their part, will be looking to end a poor record against the Swedes. Since they won the teams' first two meetings, the Bulgarians have drawn two and lost seven in a run stretching back to 1967.
The experienced Marian Hristov, who played in the two most recent engagements between the sides, expects to show Sweden that some things have changed since 1998. "Six years ago when we lost 1-0 against Sweden in Burgas in a [UEFA] EURO 2000™ qualifier, we were going through a change of generations," the midfield player said. "Now, we're a completely different side."
Now the Bulgarians believe they have done sufficient homework to unhinge a Swedish side that had a slow start to their UEFA EURO 2004™ campaign before recording five successive victories to advance to the finals. Bulgaria coach Plamen Markov has produced a reliable 4-4-1-1 formation, developing a team that is not necessarily built to suit the mood of his best players.
In looking for the right blend, Markov drafted the Serbian-born Zoran Jankovic into the national team following his loan spell with PFC Litex Lovech from Chinese side Dalian Shide FC. Jankovic will act as support for the Bulgarians' main target, Dimitar Berbatov. In addition, Stilian Petrov, who is often employed as a free-roving midfielder for Celtic FC, will incorporate more defensive duties alongside Hristov.
Tradition Although Sweden have finished second and third in World Cups, they have only won two matches in UEFA European Championship final tournaments, both victories coming in the 1992 edition against Denmark and England. During seven years at the helm, co-coaches Lars Lagerbäck and Tommy Söderberg have stuck closely to the traditional Swedish mould of a good unit playing and working hard for each other.
"Everything has gone very well this far and we have pretty much achieved everything we set out to do ahead of the game," Lagerbäck reported. "All the players have done very well in training and I believe that we will all be up for the task."
The Swedes will look to Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to provide the firepower to propel them towards the quarter-finals, with Larsson's decision to end his exile from international football providing a priceless boost. His record against the Bulgarians certainly augurs well: Larsson has scored five goals against them in five matches, including one a 4-0 win at the 1994 World Cup.
In selecting Kim Källström alongside Tobias Linderoth, meanwhile, Lagerbäck and Söderberg intend to counteract Bulgaria's intention of dropping Jankovic back from time to time, meaning no starting berth for either Anders Svensson or Christian Wilhelmsson.
But Bulgaria are certain to be no pushovers, having brushed aside Belgium and Croatia in a qualifying campaign where they recorded five clean sheets in eight matches. Like Sweden, the Bulgarians only lost one game in their eight outings - their last match versus Croatia after they had already qualified for the finals.
"I think we know everything about Sweden: their strengths and weaknesses," Markov said. Whether his side are good enough to end their recent poor form against their upcoming opponents remains to be seen.
Sweden (probable): Isaksson; Lucic, Jakobsson, Mellberg, Edman; Nilsson, Linderoth, Källström, Ljungberg; Ibrahimovic, Larsson.
Bulgaria (probable): Zdravkov; Ivailo Petkov, Pazin, Kirilov, Ivanov; Milen Petkov, Stilian Petrov, Hristov, Peev; Jankovic; Berbatov.
Referee: M Riley (Eng)
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