The Danes galvanized by the return of Morten Olsen
Having played out a 1-1 draw in Copenhagen about half a year earlier, both teams were looking forward to the return fixture with a good deal of anticipation. Since then, Bulgaria had won an away fixture and lost two further home matches, however both against teams of solid reputation: the Soviet Union and West Germany had both won friendlies in Sofia early in ’89. Young Sredets forward Emil Kostadinov had come into the national team picture and done well, scoring on each of his first two appearances, and he would be considered a starting candidate for the ‘big one’ against the Danes. Still only 21, he was building a reputation as a fearsome striker in the domestic championship. There was also 23 year old Etar playmaker Krasimir Balakov, another up and coming player, in contention. He had come off the bench in Copenhagen and played for the final couple of minutes. Manager Boris Angelov was well aware of the crop of relatively young players who were emerging into the mix, and who would have to be nurtured slowly into the unforgiving climate of international football. Absent was suspended 23 year old Sredets defender Trifon Ivanov, who had been sent off in the 1-1 meeting. Another player missing was forward Lubo Penev, who had played in both of their first two qualifiers. Oddly, he had been replaced by debutant Petar Mikhtarski and not Kostadinov, with the experienced Plamen Getov drafted into the starting XI for midfield man Georgi Yordanov.
With just one point to show for from their opening two matches, Bulgaria were probably realizing they stood little chance of making it to Italy for the World Cup. However, that did not mean they would go lightly on the match against the Danes. Just like most every Eastern European team, they were a feared opponent behind the Iron Curtain, so the visitors knew they were in for a big ask in trying to return home with two points. Denmark were probably a little unsure as to exactly where their international standing was coming into the game. Since that 1-1 in Copenhagen, they had participated in the annual Malta tournament and finished second behind Algeria, as well as lost to Italy (1-0 away) and beaten Canada (2-0 at home), the latter the match where the Laudrup brothers for the very first time had started an international fixture together. Young Brian, the Brøndby forward, was widely regarded as an extraordinary talent, and there was a lot of expectations as they were now both internationals. Older brother Michael had of course been a part of the great Danish team of the mid 80s, and was by now seen as a hugely vital and experienced cog in Piontek’s machinery. However, due to injury, he was missing from the squad before departure to Sofia. He had not excelled in the Danish’ opening two qualifying matches, so this was Piontek’s opportunity to see how the team would fare in a telling match without their talismanic forward.
The great talking point in those parts of Scandinavia ahead of the match, was of course Morten Olsen’s return to the national team. The ageing yet stylish libero had originally retired from the international picture after Denmark’s disappointing 1988 European Championship campaign, but he had been persuaded by boss Piontek to make his comeback with the national team following their indifferent start to the qualifiers. If selected, and there would never have been much doubt about that, Olsen would be making his 100th appearance for his country (the first ever Danish player to achieve this milestone), having made his debut in a qualifier for the 1972 European Championship during a 1-0 home defeat against Nordic brethren Norway almost 19 years earlier. The 39 year old was still a feature with Köln in the West German Bundesliga. Morten Olsen had been captaining Denmark in each of his last 46 internationals, and would on his comeback retain the captain’s armband, with namesake Lars Olsen giving way. The interesting point would be where Piontek would play the veteran defender. The libero position had been donned ‘the other’ Olsen, and he had done alright, even if his stature was nowhere near that of his predecessor. As it would turn out, Morten Olsen took to the pitch in Sofia in a midfield anchor role. The Danish had a lot of respect for Bulgaria after their previous encounter, and would not risk an awful lot in the initial stages of the return match. Morten Olsen would have to draw on all his experience and guile in his deep-lying midfield role in the Bulgarian capital.
42 year old Frenchman and maths teacher Alain Delmer would be officiating the match. This would be his ninth international, having made his debut as far back as in ’77. Six of his previous appointments had been friendlies, whereas his two qualifying matches had come in ’83 and ’84 respectively, when he had refereed Northern Ireland’s 2-1 home win against Turkey ahead of the 1984 European Championship, as well as Greece’ 3-1 home defeat against today’s hosts Bulgaria in qualification for the 1984 Olympic football tournament in Los Angeles. In fact, three of Bulgaria’s players for today had featured in that particular match: captain Nikolay Iliev and midfielders Ayan Sadakov and Ivaylo Kirov.
This would be the two countries’ ninth meeting, and Bulgaria had yet to lose. They had indeed won all four of their previous encounters in Sofia. No wonder why the visitors had chosen a cautious approach to the game.
|1 Iliya Valov
|2 Iliyan Kiryakov
|3 Pavel Dochev
|4 Krasimir Bezinski
|5 Nikolay Iliev (c)
|6 Zapryan Rakov
|7 Ivaylo Kirov
|8 Ayan Sadakov
|9 Hristo Stoichkov
|10 Petar Mihtarski
|11 Plamen Getov
|12 Nikolay Donev
|13 Plamen Simeonov
|14 Iliya Voynov
|15 Krasimir Balakov
|16 Emil Kostadinov
|1 Peter Schmeichel
|2 Jan Heintze
|3 Kent Nielsen
|4 Lars Olsen
|5 John Sivebæk
|6 John Larsen
|7 Morten Olsen (c)
|8 John Jensen
|9 Jan Bartram
|10 Flemming Povlsen
|11 Brian Laudrup
|12 John Helt
|13 Henrik Risom
|14 Kim Vilfort
|15 Lars Elstrup
|16 Troels Rasmussen
Bulgaria’s formation is slightly less attacking than the Danish, even if right back Kiryakov does his best to destroy the image of their 5-3-2 as conservative through his numerous forward bursts. Captain Iliev is doing libero duties, but hardly sits very deep. The two central defensive man-markers are not tied to a Danish forward each, but are more zonally orientated, with Rakov seen to the right of his libero, Dochev to the left. This is opposed to Dochev’s role in the opposite fixture, when he had been seen as the right one of the three central defenders. Left-back Bezinski is not very adventurous at all, rather the opposite. Him and Kiryakov had also switched sides since the meeting between the two countries in Denmark.
In midfield, Kirov and Sadakov are behind Getov, who plays more or less as an attacking midfielder. Sadakov’s work is of slightly more defensive nature than Kirov’s, as the latter can be seen supporting more forward-thinking players. Mihtarski’s position is probably supposed to be up front, but he time and again withdraws, possibly to avoid the attention of the physically imposing Danish centre halfs, which means Stoichkov often is left to deal with them alone. The lack of passion is apparent throughout the team, with a couple of exceptions in Kiryakov and occasionally Stoichkov. The lack of urgency runs like a common thread throughout their performance.
Denmark are more 3-5-2 than 5-3-2, with their flank men higher in the pitch, and in particular Sivebæk on the right. This is probably a tactic worked out beforehand by the management, as Bulgaria are no threat whatsoever down their left hand side. Or were the Danish thinking Kiryakov and Bezinski would be switched again like they had been in the opposite encounter months earlier, with Sivebæk seen as more than capable enough to deal with whatever party tricks Kiryakov might have, and Heintze instead being the more attacking of the two? Sivebæk ends up having a very good game, delievering the telling cross for the opening goal and also creating havoc on a couple of other occasions. Libero Lars Olsen can stride past the halfway line time and again as there’s Morten Olsen to rely on for dropping back into his position whenever Lars decides to swing the pendulum. At centre half, Nielsen is playing to the left, with Larsen on the right side of central defence, often left to deal with Stoichkov, which he does satisfactorily. Stoichkov does have a few attempts on goal, but not as a result of sloppy play by Larsen.
The Danish central midfield three has got Jensen (right) and Bartram (left) doing the running on each side of veteran M Olsen, who is performing solidly in the anchor role. Jensen is more the enforcer, whilst Bartram runs his socks off, and often puts pressure on the Bulgarian defensive line, as seen so prolifically when he wins the ball from Kirov to play Laudrup through for the second goal. The two forwards often operate in distances geographically close to one another, particularly early in the game, but the lack of inter-play between them is almost astounding. One is hard pressed for a positive answer to the question whether they actually pass the ball to each other at all during the match.
Denmark set off in a cautious manner. They are very careful about sending too many players forward, and seem to rely on their two strikers doing the business. They line up in a 3-5-2, where Sivebæk and Heintze are right and left sided midfielders respectively, and Lars Olsen can be seen in what is by now his customary libero role. This means returning talisman Morten Olsen acts as the holding midfielder, with Jensen (right) and Bartram doing the midfield running for him. Central defenders are Larsen, to L Olsen’s right, and big Nielsen. Up top there’s the quick and nimble B Laudrup keeping regular Povlsen company. Early on in the game, they seem to follow each other around the pitch, which appears to be on the back of tactical instruction from Piontek. The tandem can soon be seen to the right, soon to the left. However, even if they play relatively close to one another, there is an appallingly low number of passes between the two. It is as if they chose not to pass to one another, but rather to another team mate. This lack of inter-play could possibly upset the Danish attacking rhythm. In the opening exchanges, though, the visitors lie deep and wish to soak up any early pressure that could be thrown at them from the hosts. Bulgaria, though, do not go about matters at a high pace either. They seem content trying to execute little midfield triangles, and look to the creativity of Stoichkov up front to cause Denmark problems. Mikhtarski plays just off the Sredets striker on his debut, but is easily hustled off the ball. Getov, the most advanced of the home team’s midfield three, seems to be the only other early threat to the Danes. At the back, Bulgaria use captain Iliev as their sweeper, whereas man markers are Rakov and Dochev, albeit in more loose terms: Neither has a designated striker to accompany. Bulgaria appear to let their central defenders operate according to the movements of the Danish forwards, with both Rakov and Dochev taking turns in closing down either Dane. Even Iliev is used in combat, so there is not much resembling clear marking orders in central defensive areas for the home team. In the centre of the pitch, there’s the experienced Sadakov in a more defensive role to the left of Getov, with Kirov doing his best to assist their midfield playmaker to Getov’s right. In Bulgaria’s 5-3-2, right back Kiryakov is clearly the more industrious wing-back, with the right-footed Bezinski on the left hand side a lot more conservative in his approach. The two full-backs have switched sides since the tie in Copenhagen.
With such sparse attacking numbers, Bulgaria do struggle to create much in terms of danger in front of the big Danish goalkeeper. Neither side is very direct, but when the visitors decide to attack, they seem to do it with more conviction. There also seems to be a deliberate piece of tactic that when Lars Olsen ventures forward ball at feet, Morten Olsen drops down into his namesake’s defensive role. For attacking set-pieces, the 39 year old pushes forward, and when Rakov brings down Laudrup wide right deep inside the Bulgarian half, Sivebæk can use his accurate right foot to deliever a pinpoint cross. The ball evades Dochev on six yards and drops down behind his back, where both Laudrup and Morten Olsen challenge for it. Probably a bit disturbed by his team mate, the veteran Dane can only head agonisingly wide when he really should have put Denmark 1-0 up on his comeback. Already, the visitors had had a half volleyed effort from Jensen easily saved by Valov, and only a few minutes later, 16 minutes into the match, there’s a Danish break on when Laudrup leaves Iliev for dead and charges into the penalty area, but a poor touch sees the route to fellow forward Povlsen cut off, and he has to get a hurried shot away which goes wide of Valov’s post. Bearing in mind Laudrup and Povlsen’s apparent lack of will to pass the ball to one another, it is unclear whether Laudrup was ever intending to play his striking partner in, but had he chosen to do so before his ill penultimate touch, Povlsen would have been odds-on to give the visitors the lead. Despite their intent to lie deep, Denmark have already come close to scoring twice in the opening quarter of an hour.
What little comes down the other end is often from Stoichkov’s boot, or even head, as is seen when Getov swings in a right hand free-kick, having come the Bulgarians’ way after typically another Stoichkov burst. On this particular occasion he had left the otherwise solid Heintze for dead, and the Danish left-sided midfielder was threading a fine line, having already been issued with a yellow card for an early second foul, as he had given Kirov a small kick on the ankle. Monsieur Delmer let him off the hook as he brought Stoichkov down. The young home forward dusted himself off and got his head on the end of Getov’s free, but he could not get properly over the ball, which ended up in the stand.
There’s a distinct lack of goalmouth action after these first couple of incidents. Denmark have managed to stifle the Bulgarian midfield, where Getov is easily caught in M Olsen’s net, and Kirov is predominantly inefficient when faced with Bartram, who is a powerful presence in the Danish midfield. Jensen is smaller, but knows how to perform a tackle. And with Morten Olsen’s calm head in their midst, the Scandinavians are hardly put to the test. It is easy to see that the Köln player draws on his experience in telling his team mates what to do and of the importance to keep calm. Eventually, Stoichkov grows increasingly frustrated, and he protests against even the most obvious of refereeing decisions. He is a big talent, but wasting his energy on decisions against is futile. He then proceeds to test Schmeichel from all of 30 yards when he hits a right foot half volley that the ‘keeper has to fist away for a corner. The Sredets forward is showing both his Dr Jekyll and his Mr Hyde sides during the opening half.
The Danish are not afraid to keep hold of the ball inside the opponent’s half, and they will eventually get their deserved break-through as they take the lead five minutes from half time: Again Sivebæk has been fed wide right, with no Bezinski in sight. Lars Olsen had moved forward, and it was his pass that played the Saint-Étienne full-back in. Another precise cross went over a Bulgarian defender’s head, this time of captain Iliev, and Povlsen was left with an easy task guiding the ball into the net with his head. They see the half out and can enter the dressing rooms a goal to the good. Piontek’s boys have tactically outshone the hosts.
The final period is less than two minutes old when the French referee produces the game’s second yellow card: Bulgarian libero and captain Iliev catches hold of Povlsen as the forward is about to race past him just past the centre circle. Iliev’s used to being the last line of defence, but on this occasion he did have Rakov still behind him, so he could have chosen a different kind of tactics on Povlsen had he wanted to avoid a booking.
Angelov had made a half time substitution by bringing Simeonov on for Sadakov, who had had a rather mundane first half. It appears to be a straight swap. Simeonov shall not bring to the field of play much in contrasting ideas to what had been seen from Sadakov during the first half. Bulgaria still are unable to find any kind of rhythm to their game, and they can not break down the Danish defence. There is an alarming lack of width in the home team’s attacking play, even if industrious right-back Kiryakov is doing his utmost to assist his more forward team mates. He does not, however, get into any good areas for crossing, and the two strikers, of which Stoichkov is still the most advanced, just do not get anything to work with from either flank. The left hand side is completely dead. Left-back Bezinski is never daring enough to challenge this corridor. A Getov free-kick from a wide right position shows the crowd what could have been if only Bulgaria had done anything to address their width problem: He whips it into the space between the goalkeeper and the defenders, and although the ball eventually evades everyone, just a mere touch could so easily have guided the 49th minute delievery into the back of the net. A similar opportunity shall never again present itself.
The least one could have been expecting from Bulgaria in the second half was a proper go at the visitors. It never materializes. The home side are passive, slow and devoid of ideas. Their only source of creativity is Stoichkov, who has a sturdy Danish defence to deal with more or less on his own, as Mikhtarski is not much in way of support. Angelov has his hands tied after having made a second and enforced substitution less than ten minutes into the second period: His goalkeeper has to leave the pitch with injury, a not infrequent occurence when it comes to Iliya Valov. He had been needing attention in the away fixture versus the Danish, and he would already in the subsequent Group 1 fixture be substituted at half time away in Romania. Add to that the fact that he had been replaced again at half time in the 2-1 friendly home defeat against West Germany in March, and a picture is beginning to take shape. Valov was a part of the strong Sredets team that had made it all the way to the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup during 1988/89, and in the 4-2 away leg defeat at Barcelona he had to go off and be replaced well before full time. So when Sivebæk’s run down the channel and low cross into the penalty area comes into the ‘keeper’s path just ahead of the on-storming Povlsen, the Bulgaria number 1 goes down clutching his right knee after what appears to be the slightest of touches from the Danish striker. After a couple of minutes with treatment on-pitch, he is eventually carried off by defender Rakov and a member of the medical staff to have his treatment continued behind the Bulgarian goal. An old-school ambulance speeds erratically towards the area of the ground where Valov is receiving treatment, but the player will later be carried away on a stretcher. 31 year old Nikolay Donev from Etar, right-back Kiryakov’s club, comes on to replace the stricken Valov. With 35 minutes left for play and in dire need of an attacking change, Boris Angelov is unable to bring on the promise of Emil Kostadinov. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible that the Bulgarian manager would have omitted Mikhtarski from the starting line-up and instead picked Kostadinov who had already showed glimpses of his talent during winter and spring. He must have felt a great deal of pressure as the second half was unfolding in front of him, must Mr Angelov.
Denmark are content as they already have the goal that will seal them the points and a first ever win against Bulgaria. They just need to monitor the movements of the increasingly frustrated Stoichkov, and nothing can go wrong. The game is one-paced; even said home forward is by now unable to cause much of a threat to the visitors’ rear lines. He seems to question with negative body language every decision that goes against him and his team mates, and he will eventually earn himself a booking when he retaliates against Jensen after the Danish midfielder had attempted a tackle on him inside the centre circle. Home midfielder Kirov follows suit only a couple of minutes after when he deliberately stamps on substitute Vilfort’s foot after a challenge. Piontek had taken veteran M Olsen off after 75 minutes of his comeback match, in which he did very well in his holding midfield role. Vilfort, a tall, lean figure, seemed an apt replacement for the final 15 minutes to see the game out.
Bulgaria’s best chance of the second half had fallen to left back Bezinski, of all people, after he had come forward for a right wing corner about 20 minutes from time. Getov played it low towards the edge of the 18 yard area, and Bezinski’s right boot connected well. However, it was a relatively comfortable save for Schmeichel to make, and he still had a defender on the line in case the ball had evaded him.
Piontek decides to replace Jensen with Helt five minutes from the end, possibly because he does not wish his midfielder to earn a booking which will keep him out of Denmark’s next match. Helt immediately settles into the holding midfield role, with Vilfort going into Jensen’s position. It might just be mandatory by now, because the conviction and belief have not been present with the home side for a long while. When Bartram does a good job on closing Kirov down, he can thread the ball through for Laudrup, on the blindside of Rakov, to finish with a deft right foot touch past the advancing Vonev for 2-0. It is hardly a goal which their play has warranted, as they too have been unwilling to commit men forward, but who could blame them for wanting to sit back and hold onto their precious one goal lead. Yet it is the final nail in Bulgaria’s coffin, a couple of minutes after the few Danish fans in the ground had confidently begun their rendition of “Sejren er vor” (“the win is our’s”), still audible among the 30 000 plus crowd. The game sees a couple of minutes with time added on for Valov’s injury, and Bartram still has time for one last pop after a short corner from the right. However, his shot goes well wide, though as soon as the referee signals the end to the match, the Danish know they have done their part of the job. Aware of a dropped point for Romania in Greece, they are very much still in the hunt for qualification.
A comfortable win for the visitors despite leaving the second goal very late. Bulgaria rarely have anything to offer in an attacking sense, and Denmark are always comfortable against the home forwards in this their first ever win against the Bulgarians. There is no pace to the game; there is little apparent desire from the home players to win. Angelov’s decision not to pick Kostadinov for a starting position is one which would come back to haunt him, as the player he did pick to accompany Stoichkov up front, debutant Mikhtarski, was bleak throughout. This is in fact Angelov’s final match in charge of the Bulgarian national team, as their football federation proceeds to give him the sack shortly after.
1 Valov 6.4
not over-confident, and looks very much in doubt as to how to deal with Sivebæk’s cross for 1-0
(12 Donev 6.6
has little to do, but makes a couple of routine saves, and is not as fussy as Valov. Perhaps too easily out-foxed for the second goal?)
2 Kiryakov 6.9
most of the game quite industrious, and seemingly one of very few home players with a burning desire to perform well. Comes forward a lot, but is unable to deliever telling crosses. Has no great individual threat against him in his defensive territory
3 Dochev 6.5
far from convincing, and is spared embarassment when he loses his man from an early Danish Sivebæk set-piece; header went just wide. In trouble when faced with quick strikers’ feet, and also partly to blame for the second goal as he takes out unnecessary depth, even if Laudrup would have been onside anyway
4 Bezinski 6.1
a dull, uninspiring performance in which he is predominantly glued to his own half. Lets Sivebæk get into several crossing positions. Is, surprisingly, seen finishing off the home team’s best second half effort
5 Iliev 6.7
caught ball-watching for Denmark’s opening goal. Other than that ok. Strong in aerial battles, though did not often get to show it
6 Rakov 6.6
the more resolute of the two man-markers, but found out by both Povlsen and Laudrup along the ground
7 Kirov 6.7
often available as an option, but does not cover a lot of ground defensively, and loses possession to Bartram just before the second goal
8 Sadakov 6.3
sadly anonymous during a pedestrian first half
(13 Simeonov 6.3
Angelov could have kept Sadakov on and had the luxury of being able to bring on a forward later in the half, as Simeonov’s performance mirrored that of Sadakov
9 Stoichkov 6.9
does chase and harry defenders, also has a couple of attempts on goal, and is the home side’s only relevant threat to the Danish goal. Yet increasingly frustrated which will eventually get the better of him
10 Mihtarski 6.0
too easily brushed aside and has little or no idea what to do when in possession. Also caught a bit in no-man’s land between Getov and Stoichkov
11 Getov 6.7
he directs decent delieveries from set-piece, and comes close to assisting on a hat-trick of occasions. In open play he is found out by the Danish anchor men
1 Schmeichel 7.2
a very assured performance: he sweeps on a couple of occasions, and he is in control of his area. He also fists away an opportunistic Stoichkov effort with ease
2 Heintze 6.9
concentrated mainly on defensive duties and did them well. Seen in tussles with Kiryakov now and then, perhaps fortunate to avoid a penalty against late in the game, again after Kiryakov had tried to advance past him inside the area. A couple of fine back passes
3 K Nielsen 7.0
so strong both in the air and in the tackle, but rarely challenged. Keeps Mihtarski well out of the game
4 L Olsen 7.0
a sound libero interpretation, has a good understanding with M Olsen as they switch positions from time to time, which is when L Olsen decides to cross the halfway line
5 Sivebæk 7.4
defends without much problem as little comes down his side from the home team, and has a few bursts forward which cause Bulgaria a lot of problems. Assists with his free-kick for the first goal. A good game
6 Larsen 6.9
profits from keeping things simple, and is often involved directly with Stoichkov. Has one appearance in the opposite box from a set-piece, but is focused on defensive duties
7 M Olsen 7.2
a re-debut well worthy of praise. Great talker and motivator; installs calmness in his team mates. Dependable in both boxes and agonisingly close to scoring about 15 minutes into his comeback
8 Jensen 6.8
typically tigerish, but as often his creativity lets him down
(12 Helt –
only deputises towards the end to see the game out in the anchor role)
9 Bartram 7.2
tireless worker, never stops running, and gets his reward as he robs Kirov of the ball before he slots Laudrup through for the second goal
10 Povlsen 6.9
fine headed poacher’s goal, but could have done more to get a potentially fruitful partnership with Laudrup going
11 B Laudrup 6.8
apart from his late goal, he did not contribute a great deal. Where was the inter-play with his forward colleague?