Unbeaten in five FIFA World Cup qualifying Group B fixtures and four points clear in second place, Bulgaria are starting to believe they can reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time since 2004.
If confidence among Luboslav Penev's squad was simmering, it boiled over when the Lions dismantled Malta 6-0 on Friday in Sofia to move within a point of section pacesetters Italy. Tuesday's opponents Denmark are likely to provide a sterner examination of Bulgaria's World Cup credentials, yet Penev's men travel to Copenhagen's Parken Stadium with a weight of history behind them.
Starting with a 1-1 in the sides' first meeting in 1957, all five meetings between the teams on Scandinavian soil have ended in draws and former Bulgaria boss Stoicho Mladenov – who oversaw a 1-1 stalemate in a World Cup qualifier in 2000 – is confident of another decent result this evening. "We pressed the Danes all night and that was the main reason for the draw," recalled the 55-year-old. "The game will be remembered for a very gritty performance. Now the team is balanced and there are some very strong characters."
Turn the clock back two years and star-studded lineups containing the immortal names of Peter Schmeichel, Michael Laudrup, Krasimir Balakov and Hristo Stoichkov graced a contest that also finished 1-1. Unmistakable values that instil hunger and pride when pulling on the national jersey underpinned another dogged display, as then Bulgaria coach Boris Angelov recalled.
"Our performance was disciplined against a very strong Danish side. We showed tremendous strength of character and team spirit and we could have won the game towards the end but Iliyan Kiryakov missed a good chance. Now I think both teams are pretty even although Bulgaria have enjoyed a great start, while in 1998 we began with a home defeat against Romania."
Ivan Vutsov, who guided Bulgaria to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, twice secured 1-1 friendly draws against Denmark in 1984 and 1991. "The first friendly was just before the the 1984 EURO finals and the Danes had some super players like Søren Lerby and Preben Elkjær," he said. "We were a young side but we played with no fear. My team always had great spirit and for me that is even more important that having just one or two leaders."
All of these past results can only encourage current coach Penev, and he is thinking positive. "Denmark are a very solid team and well organised. They also play wonderful football," he said. "The fact that we have not lost in Copenhagen is a good thing and I strongly believe we won't lose. The game will not decide the final standings although it remains hugely important for us."