France sealed qualification to the last eight as Group B winners with a 3-1 win over Bulgaria. Accompanied by Spain’s 2-1 decision over Romania in the group’s other game, this result saw Bulgaria eliminated from the competition.
France coach AIme Jacquet lined up in a now familiar 4-3-3, with Lilian Thuram and striker Christophe Dugarry returning to the starting lineup in place of Jocelyn Angloma and Patrice Loko.
Bulgaria coach Dimitar Penev adjusted his formation to a 4-4-2 for this game, pairing Hristo Stoichkov with Lyuboslav Penev up front. Suspended defender Radostin Kishishev was replaced by Petar Hubchev, while Emil Kremenliev replaced Emil Kostadinov.
The first attack of the game was launched by Bulgaria, when an errant pass by Zinedine Zidane was intercepted by Yordan Letchkov deep in the Bulgarian half. Hamburg midfielder Letchkov took a touch before releasing Stoichkov into a foot race with French center back Marcel Desailly. Stoichkov was fouled with a mistimed sliding tackle from Desailly, and the French defender would now spend the rest of a game on a yellow card. Stoichkov got up to take the free kick, but his whipped effort was straight into the hands of French goalkeeper Bernard Lama. Stoichkov and Desailly found themselves in another head to head minutes later, with Stoichkov throwing himself to the ground dramatically in an attempt to draw a red card.
Soon after, both teams would be playing with a center back on a yellow card, when Trifon Ivanov was booked for a sliding challenge through the back of Christophe Dugarry.
In the 11th minute, Letchkov carved out another chance, when he came away with a loose ball against two French defenders and drove to the byline. Letchkov’s cross was met at the back post by Penev, but the striker skewed his shot wide of the target.
Bulgaria’s strong start continued a minute later, as did Stoichkov’s ongoing quest to see opponent Desailly sent back to the locker rooms. Desailly brought down Stoichkov in a wide area, leaving the striker gesturing wildly to English referee Dermot Gallagher to brandish a red card.
A goal in the group’s other game would raise the stakes here, as Javier Manjarin fired Spain into an early lead against Romania. That goal would force a three way tie in Group B standings, meaning tie breakers would decide who advanced as things stood.
France showcased their lightning strike ability in attack, when Youri Djorkaeff collected ball and played a pass forward. Striker Dugarry cleverly let the pass run through for Zidane, who was fouled on the edge of the area. Kremenliev committed the foul and became the second Bulgarian defender on a yellow card with 76 minutes still to play in the game. Djorkaeff took the free kick, but his well struck shot was denied by an excellent diving save from Borislav Mihaylov.
The game saw a somewhat unique injury delay in the 17th minute, when referee Gallagher limped off with a calf injury. The official received treatment from the Bulgarian bench before continuing with the game.
The deadlock was broken in the 20th minute when a Dugarry cross was headed behind for a corner by Ivaylo Yordanov. Djorkaeff whipped in the corner with pace, and it was met by the head of Laurent Blanc who planted his header past Mihaylov to give France the lead. With Spain leading at Elland Road, the current standings meant Bulgaria were heading for elimination.
Gallagher’s calf issue persisted and the game was again delayed in the 28th minute for him to be replaced by fellow English official Paul Durkin.
Bulgaria received a lifeline from the group’s other game as Florin Raducioiu equalized for Romania, meaning Bulgaria would progress even with a loss here if that result held.
The running head to head battle of Stoichkov and Desailly persisted, as a strong tackle saw Desailly concede a throw in before ending up in a heated exchange with Stoichkov.
The combative nature of the game continued when French midfielder Didier Deschamps was lucky to escape without a card for a reckless challenge on Ivanov. Defender Ivanov stepped up to take the free kick from distance, but his effort was blasted hopelessly off target. A foul from Dugarry Tsanko Tsvetanov quickly followed, and the France striker did not avoid a yellow card for that challenge.
French left back Bixente Lizarazu contributed well in the attack all game, and his surge forward drew a foul near the byline. The crossing range free kick was pulled back to Zidane just outside the penalty area, but the midfielders shot was hit well over the crossbar.
Bulgaria responded with an attack launched by Letchkov who played in striker Penev down the channel, Penev hit a cross in the direction of Stoichkov, but Lizarazu was in good position to clear the danger.
Defender Hubchev tried to clear his lines just before half time, but was robbed by good pressure from Dugarry. After winning possession, Dugarry strode in on goal and lofted a delicate chip that was only denied by a spectacular fingertip save from Mihaylov. Mihaylov was forced into action once more before the interval, when Djorkaeff cut inside only to have his effort stopped by the Reading goalkeeper.
At the interval, both teams were set to advance into the quarter-finals as things stood. But Bulgaria knew that without an equalizer here, they would be eliminated if Spain could find a winning goal against Romania in Leeds.
The first chance of the second half came when a tackle in midfield saw the ball ricochet in behind the Bulgarian backline, but Mihaylov was quick off his line to deny Djorkaeff. Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Djorkaeff had another chance later on, when he cleverly dummied a forward pass from teammate Vincent Guerin, seeing the ball roll past a wrong footed Mihaylov before being cleared off the line by Ivanov.
France were visibly the better team after the restart, and took a 63rd minute lead when Dugarry was fouled in a wide position by Ivanov. Djorkaeff swung over a teasing free kick and Bulgarian striker Penev could only glance a header into his own net as he tried to mark Blanc. The two goal deficit left Bulgaria in a hole, and hoping Romania could hold onto their result against Spain to keep them in the tournament.
Bulgaria clawed their way back into the game, and won a shooting range free kick when Zlatko Yankov was fouled by Lizarazu on the line of the penalty area arc. Stoichkov stepped up to majestically bend his free kick past Lama into the top corner of the goal.
Jacquet responded to conceding by making a change at center forward, bringing on Loko in place of Dugarry. Loko made a quick impact as he received a ball to feet with his back to goal, before lifting a clever pass into the path of onrushing winger Christian Karembeu, only to see the ball diverted by an acrobatic clearance from Ivanov.
With Bulgaria chasing the goal that could keep them in the tournament, they subbed on Daniel Borimirov in place of Yankov.
France remained a threat going forward, and Loko raced away down the flank. Loko’s cross was met at the back post by fellow substitute Reynald Pedros, but the midfielder’s well hit volley was saved by Mihaylov.
Bulgaria coach Dimitar Penev made another attacking substitution in the 82nd minute, bringing on Georgi Donkov for Krasimir Balakov as the game entered it’s decisive final stages.
Bad news came for Bulgaria from the group’s other game, when word spread that Guillermo Amor had put Spain into an 84th minute lead. A goal that would see Spain go through as group runners up if the results held.
With their hopes of qualification slipping away, Bulgaria won an attacking free kick two minutes from time, and the ball was launched into the penalty area with Ivanov and Penev waiting, only for French goalkeeper Lama to come and collect the ball in a crowd.
Bulgaria pushed numbers forward knowing how bady a goal was needed, but were caught on the break as France exploited a defensive error in injury time.
Bulgarian sub Donkov tracked a run forward by French right back Thuram, but showed a lack of awareness by staying with the run and dropping two yards behind the rest of his defensive line, playing Loko onside. Karembeu released Loko with a weighted pass, and the striker raced away to round Mihaylov and provide an insurance goal to seal a 3-1 victory for France.
France sealed a spot in the last 8 as Group B winners, and announced themselves as a serious contender with strong performances in each game. The French defense had now conceded only 4 goals in 13 games (qualifying and tournament group stages combined), while both Dugarry and Loko had found the net and shown strong ability to lead the attack. Influential playmaker Djorkaeff would enter knockout play having registered three assists in as many games.
Bulgarian playmaker Stoichkov will have been bitterly disappointed to exit the tournament so early, having established himself as one of the top scoring threats in the entire tournament, with 3 goals in 3 games to date.
This moment in time was starting to signal the end of an era for Bulgaria, as star performers Stoichkov, Mihaylov, Ivanov and Letchkov would all be 30 years or older by the time the next World Cup rolled around.
21’ FRA Laurent Blanc (Youri Djorkaeff) 1-0
63’ FRA Own Goal (Youri Djorkaeff) 2-0
69’ BUL Hristo Stoichkov (Zlatko Yankov) 2-1
90’ FRA Patrice Loko (Christian Karembeu) 3-1
MAN OF THE MATCH
#9 LM Youri Djorkaeff (France) – Winger Djorkaeff was a dominant figure as the game went on, and provided two crucial set play assists to spark the French attack.
3: LM Youri Djorkaeff – Man of the Match.
2: CD Laurent Blanc – Strong display in defense capped with the opening goal for the towering center back.
1: GK Bernard Lama – Came up with saves and commanded his area well from a string of Bulgarian set plays.
3: CF Hristo Stoichkov – Spectacular free kick goal and a consistent thorn in the side of a high quality French back four throughout the game.
2: RM Yordan Letchkov – Two way midfielder who showed tackling accompanied by a number of defense splitting passes to drive the Bulgarian attack.
1: GK Borislav Mihaylov – Two spectacular saves from a Djorkaeff free kick and a Dugarry chip capped yet another quality display from the Reading shot stopper.