Bulgaria injected life into their Euro 96 campaign, and eliminated Romania with a tight 1-0 win in Newcastle. The game would see a clash of two star playmakers, as former Barcelona teammates Hristo Stoichkov and Gheorghe Hagi were the fulcrum of each team’s attack.
Dimitar Penev lined his Bulgaria team up in a 4-3-3 making two changes from the opening 1-1 draw with Spain. Tsanko Tsvetanov started in defense after coming on as a second half substitute in the opening game, while Ivaylo Yordanov featured in central midfield. Iliyan Kiryakov was omitted for this game, while Petar Hubchev was suspended.
Romania also lined up in a 4-3-3, defender Daniel Prodan replacing Gheorghe Mihali was the only change from their group opening 1-0 defeat to France.
In the battle of the star playmakers, it was Stoichkov who would strike the first, and ultimately decisive blow in the third minute of the game. Stoichkov came in off his left wing and was found in a pocket of space between the Romanian lines by Krasimir Balakov. The winger opened up on his touch and drove towards goal, holding off multiple challenges before dispatching a neat finish low past Bogdan Stelea. Center forward Lyuboslav Penev also played an important part in the goal, making a run to drag defenders out wide and clear the path for Stoichkov to drive into.
Stoichkov caused more issues for the Romanian defense in the 5th minute, coming in off his wing to combine with Penev who was fouled on the edge of the area. Trifon Ivanov smashed the resulting free kick into the wall. The movement of Stoichkov was an issue throughout the game, as he showed the ability to both receive the ball in half spaces to feet, and stretch the Romanians in behind if defenders responded by trying to get too tight to him.
Romania carved out their first chance in the 8th minute when Marius Lacatus exchanged passes with Gheorghe Popescu before firing a shot wide from the edge of the area. Another chance came just minutes later when Hagi drew a foul, before taking the free kick and having his shot parried clear by Borislav Mihailov.
In the 20th minute, Romanian winger Lacatus came inside again to collect a pass and drive forward before playing Dorinel Munteanu in behind, but the resulting cross was deflected into the hands of Mihaylov. Throughout the game, the high positions adopted by Romanian right back Dan Petrescu, who went untracked by Stoichkov, occupied the Bulgarian left back Tsvetanov, allowing Lacatus space when he floated central.
As the game warned up with chances at both ends, Bulgarian midfielder Emil Kostadinov chipped a ball over the top for Yordan Letchkov to run onto. Romanian defender Tibor Selymes tried to intercept the pass, but his intervention saw the ball loop back across the face of his own goal, eventually falling to the feet of Kostadinov who skewed his volley wide from 10 yards out.
Romania were quickly down the other end with a slick end to end move that saw a Popescu pass cleverly dummied by Hagi before Florin Raducioiu set up Munteanu to fire wide. The end to end nature of the game continued as Stoichkov drew a foul within shooting range, before getting up to curl the free kick wide of the target.
Substitute forward Viorel Moldovan made an appearance at half time in Romoania’s opening game, and would make an even earlier appearance here as he was subbed on to replace Lacatus in the 29th minute.
The game’s most controversial incident came in the 31st minute, and left Romania justifiably livid. With numbers converging in the goalmouth, Hagi rolled his corner to the edge of the penalty area. Winger Munteanu met the pass and fired a vicious shot off the underside of the bar, with TV replays later showing the ball actually crossed the goal line by a full yard. The linesman’s flag stayed down to signal no goal and Danish referee Peter Mikkelson waved away the animated Romanian protests as the game continued.
Soon after, Bulgaria were forced into an early substitution of their own when injury forced off Kostadinov, who was replaced by Daniel Borimirov.
Bulgaria won a free kick when Balakov was fouled on the edge of the 18 yard area by Petrescu, but the chance was not converted and Bulgaria would go into the break holding a one goal lead.
Romania coach Anghel Iordanescu shuffled his pack at half time, making his second change by replacing central midfielder Ioan Lupescu with Constantin Galca. The quick pace of the first half resumed and Romania won a free kick 20 yards out early in the second half. The restart was touched to Hagi, and with the Bulgarians expecting him to shoot, the midfielder cleverly touched a pass to Munteanu to fire a shot off target.
Bulgaria won an attacking set play of their own in the 56th minute when a charging Letchkov was dragged down by Romanian substitute Galca. Ivanov stepped up to take the free kick but his errant effort flew hopelessly wide.
Romania’s search for an equalizer continued in the 58th minute when the impressive Petrescu played in Moldovan down the right flank, the forward’s cross saw Bulgarian goalkeeper Mihaylov get a vital touch that diverted the ball away from the lurking Munteanu at the back post. A recovering Radostin Kishishev got to the ball and cleared it out for a corner.
The Romanian’s continued to have the upper hand in terms of possession, with TV graphics displaying them to have a 57% advantage, but it was Bulgaria who entered the final half hour defending the crucial one goal lead.
Hagi was at the heart of most Romanian attacks, and he continued to create pressure by crossing to the back post, where Munteanu met the ball but had his shot crowded out by the Bulgarian defense. Less than a minute later, Bulgaria conceded a shooting range free kick, but Hagi sent his effort up and over the crossbar.
A golden chance to equalize came when left back Selymes surged forward and was scythed down by Yordanov out wide. The cross was swung over and Prodan found himself wide open at the back post, but deflected his diving header wide of the target. Popescu continued the Romanian attacks by driving through the heart of midfield before releasing Raducioiu into the area, but a sliding tackle by Ivanov ended the threat.
Coach Iordanescu played his final card in the search to level matters by withdrawing Popescu and sending on another attacker in the form of Adrian Ilie. Steaua forward Ilie was quickly involved but his dribble into the penalty area was stifled by another strong challenge from Ivanov.
Bulgaria had a chance to extend their lead with 10 minutes to play when Nasko Sirakov released Letchkov with an audacious backheel, but Stelea was quickly off his line to save, the rebound fell to Kishishev, but the fullback’s follow up shot was off target.
The Romanians pushed forward in desperate search of an equalizer, and won a free kick 10 yards inside the Bulgarian half with two minutes left on the clock. Hagi drove in a dangerous ball, but Prodan failed to make contact and the ball carried into the waiting hands of Mihaylov.
The pressure continued in injury time, and a Hagi long throw found its way to Prodan, but the defender’s twisting shot was wide of the post. A final chance came when Hagi was fouled in shooting range by Ivanov, but the subsequent free kick was fired into the wall as time ran out.
Bulgaria injected life into their campaign with three points here, and were in control of their destiny heading into a crunch final group game against a tough French team. A win would see Bulgaria progress as group winners, a draw would see them worst case plunged into a three way tie breaker, and a loss would eliminate them only if Spain defeated Romania in the groups other game.
Coach Penev would have some decisions to make, as central defender Hubchev would be eligible to return from suspension, while fullback Kishishev would be suspended after his second yellow card in as many games.
Romania were left eliminated and would be rightly furious with the hand they were dealt by the officiating in this game. Munteanu’s disallowed first half goal had clearly crossed the line, and a 1-1 draw here would have seen them alive going into the final round of games.
Hagi had impressed in both games so far this tournament, so he and his teammates would be likely looking to channel their anger into playing spoiler against a Spain team who would need to defeat them to have a chance of moving on.
3’ BUL Hristo Stoichkov (Krasimir Balakov) 1-0
MAN OF THE MATCH
#8 LM Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria) – It was billed as a battle of superstar playmakers, and while neither disappointed, it was Stoichkov who struck the decisive and game deciding blow for his team. His third minute goal showcased the movement and skill that troubled Romania throughout the game.
3: LM Hristo Stoichkov – Man of the Match.
2: GK Borislav Mihaylov – Made a number of important saves and commanded his area well under a barrage of set plays from Hagi in particular.
1: CM Krasimir Balakov – Passed the ball well throughout the game, and broke ROmanian lines with the pass to Stoichkov for the game winning goal.
3: CM Gheorghe Hagi – Pulled strings in possession throughout the game and created dangerous chances from set plays consistently throughout the game.
2: RD Dan Petrescu – Defended well with a tough assignment against Stoichkov, and caused Bulgaria a lot of problems by joining the attack with quality. As well as his own contributions on the ball, his occupation of opposing left back Tsvetanov freed up Lacatus to create some dangerous chances early in the game.
1: CM Gheorghe Popescu – An impressive presence in the heart of midfield, Popescu connected passes well and also showed the ability to drive forward off the dribble to spark attacks.