Spain and Bulgaria opened Euro 96 play by splitting the points in an eventful and entertaining game at Elland Road.
Spain headed into the tournament in good form after a dominant performance in qualifying, topping Group 2 that also included reigning European champions Denmark. Spain went undefeated and outscored their opponents 25-4 during the 10 game campaign.
Spain did have questions at center forward, with central midfielder Fernando Hierro topping their scoring charts during qualification with four goals. Juan Antonio Pizzi led the attack in a 4-4-2 for this game alongside Julen Guerrero.
Hierro partnered with Guillermo Amor in central midfield, while the partnership of Rafael Alkorta and Abelardo anchored the backline. Captain Andoni Zubizarreta in goal made for a strong spine of the Spanish team.
USA 94 World Cup semi finalists Bulgaria also qualified comfortably, finishing 2nd in Group 7 behind Germany, but 7 points ahead of third placed Georgia. The signature performance of Bulgaria’s campaign came when they beat the powerful Germans 3-2 in Sofia, with star forward Hristo Stoichkov netting a pair of penalties.
Stoichkov led all Group 7 scorers with 10 goals in 10 games during qualifying, and formed a front three in a 4-3-3 for this game alongside Lyuboslav Penev and Emil Kostadinov here. Veteran star Yordan Letchkov featured in central midfield, with the physical presence of center back Trifon Ivanov in the heart of defense.
The first notable pressure came in the 11th minute when Zubizarreta got a hand to a Stoichkov corner, conceding a second corner in the process. The second restart was swung in from the other side, but headed clear by Abelardo at the back post.
Spain created a chance of their own minutes later when pressure from Guerrero dispossessed Iliyan Kiryakov near the byline. The forward’s low cross was diverted out for a corner by a sliding Ivanov. Bulgaria managed to get to the corner first, but the half clearance landed at the feet of Hierro on the edge of the area, with the midfielder blasting a shot wide.
An even bigger chance fell to Spain soon after when a Pizzi cross was cleared, only for Alberto Belsue to head back into the danger area. Aerial pressure from Jose Luis Caminero forced a weak defensive header from Letchkov, and the ball fell to the feet of Guerrero, only for the Athletic Bilbao striker to blaze the chance high over the bar.
The Spanish were starting to establish the upper hand, and Stoichkov was dispossessed in his own half by a combination of HIerro and the hard working Caminero. Hierro strode forward after gaining possession and played a neat one-two with target man Pizzi before having his well hit shot tipped over the bar by Borislav Mihailov in the Bulgarian goal. Pizzi displayed his strong ability to link play with back to goal during the buildup, despite being clearly fouled by Ivanov as he found Hierro.
The resulting corner was cut to a halt when Italian referee Piero Ceccarini blew for a foul, but a quick thinking Mihaylov took the kick quickly to launch an end to end counter for the Bulgarians.Letchkov collected the pass from his goalkeeper and drove beyond halfway before releasing Kostadinov down the right flank, the wingers cross found Stoichkov who had drifted open at the back post, only for the talisman forward to volley over the bar.
Spain were awarded a shooting range free kick when Pizzi was fouled again by Ivanov, but Hierro’s shot was blocked by the wall.
The opening half hour of the game saw Spain mostly in the driving seat and easy to break Bulgarian lines in possession. The Bulgarian front three pressed, but left open midfielders with room behind, and the Spanish fullbacks also found it easy to beat the Bulgarian wingers going forward to create overloads out wide.
Bulgaria managed to gain some attacking possession when Penev was fouled just inside the Spanish half by Alkorta. Bulgaria took the free kick quickly and found Krasimir Balakov, who advanced to the edge of the 18 yard area before firing his shot high into the Elland Road crowd.
In the 45th minute, Hierro played the impressive Caminero in behind, but his low cross was intercepted by a sliding Ivanov as Pizzi waited to otherwise roll into an empty net.
The last act of the first half came when Bulgaria won a free kick 30 yards out, but Ivanov blasted the opportunity well wide of the target.
Spain received a lucky break soon after the intermission when Kiryakov lifted a ball over the top for Stoichkov, and the star forward seemingly broke the deadlock with a sublime volleyed finish over Zubizarreta. The Bulgarian celebrations were cut short when a linesman flag was raised for offside, even though replays showed Stoichkov to be clearly onside when the pass was played.
The strong start to the second half continued for Bulgaria when Letchkov played in Kostadinov down the right flank, and the winger’s cross was headed behind for a corner by Belsue. The resulting corner was cleared and the attack ended when Kiryakov fired wide from the edge of the area.
With both sides pushing for victory, Spain coach Javier Clemente switched up his attack by replacing the largely ineffective Guerrero with Real Madrid forward Jose Emilio Amavisca.
Spain made their first attacking imprint on the second half when Hierro’s shot from distance was deflected wide for a corner, but Caminero’s attempted cross floated harmlessly into the arms of Mihaylov.
Bulgaria continued to cause problems at the other end and carved out a big chance from an attacking set play. Stoichkov showed neat footwork on the left flank before benign brought down by Petar Hubchev. Stoichkov got up to take the free kick and drove the ball powerfully into the danger area, Spanish defender Alkorta blocked it but the ball fell to the feet of Letchkov who was denied by a sharp save from the advancing Zubizarreta.
Alkorta made a costly error in the 65th minute when his poor clearance fell to the feet of Bulgarian striker Penev, Stoichkov received a pass and played a searching ball over the top to right winger Kostadinov in behind. Kostadinov took a touch before being brought down by Sergi for a penalty kick. Stoichkov stepped up and opened his account for the tournament with an unsaveable effort driven in off the post.
Spain had a chance to equalize soon after when Pizzi was fouled as the seemingly card proof Ivanov went through his back during an aerial challenge. Hierro stepped up to take the free kick, but his curling effort was saved well by a diving Mihaylov.
Likely stung by giving away a penalty on the defensive end, Spanish left back Sergi joined the attack to good effect and squared the ball to the top of the 18, the ball fell to Hierro who was denied yet again when Mihaylov tipped his well hit shot over the bar.
The game took a huge turn in the 72nd minute when a wayward Bulgarian pass was seized upon by Pizzi, the striker played in a streaking Caminero who was dragged down just outside the area. Hubchez committed the foul and was subsequently red carded for the offense.
Bulgarian coach Dimitar Penev reshuffled immediately by subbing on Tsanko Tsvetanov and Ivaylo Yordanov for Kiryakov and Kostadinov respectively. Spanish counterpart Clemente responded by subbing on midfielder Alfonso in place of Amor.
Clemente’s change would pay immediate dividends as Alfonso would level the scores from the resulting set play with his first touch of the ball. Fullback Sergi would redeem himself from the conceded penalty by providing the crucial assist on the goal.
Hierro blasted the free kick into the wall, and the ball would fall to Sergi who drove the ball across the face of goal, where Alfonso would skilfully guide it home past Mihaylov.
Bulgaria would not be staring down the barrel of a tough last 15 minutes, looking to curb the Spanish momentum a man down, but there was more drama to come.
With things looking good for Spain, matters were quickly leveled out in the 75th minute when both sides were reduced to 10 men. Bulgarian right back Radostin Kishishev dribbled down the right sideline and was scythed down by a reckless Pizzi challenge that resulted in the SPanish forward being dismissed by referee Ceccarini. The red card capped a wild 10 minute period that saw both teams score a goal and have a man sent off.
Emboldened by the new lease of life afforded his team, Bulgarian coach Penev replaced center forward Penev with Daniel Borimirov.
Spain won a 79th minute corner and Amavisca’s cross found Caminero at the back post, but the midfielder’s header was parried out by Mihaylov before Luis Enrique fired over the bar. Another Spanish corner was awarded three minutes later when impact sub Alfonso was dispossessed by Tsvetanov. A weak headed clearance from the corner fell to Enrique, but the midfielder badly mis-hit his volley.
Bulgaria looked to have a golden chance in the 81st minute when Balakov picked up possession wide and crossed to a wide open Stoichkov who glanced his header wide. The passage of play was rendered irrelevant though by another offside flag.
Spanish coach Clemente made his final roll of the dice a minute later by withdrawing the impressive Caminero and bringing Donato on in his place.
The game continued in helter skelter fashion and in the 84th minute Amavisca was played in wide before the ball was worked to Hierro, who’s shot from distance was stopped by yet another save from Mihaylov. Bulgaria countered and were up the other end of the field immediately, only to have their attack smothered by Zubizarreta being quick off his line to beat Stoichkov to the ball.
Soon after, Stoichkov would continue his running monologue of disagreement with the line judge as another attack was stifled by an offside flag.
In the 90th minute, a long clearance by Tsvetanov found Stoichkov who was dragged down by Abelardo as he advanced on goal. Ivanov stepped up to take the free kick but hit his shot wide.
The hard running of Alfonso created one final chance for Spain to grab the points by winning an injury time corner, but Ivanov headed clear the cross and time ran out with the spoils shared in a thoroughly entertaining game.
Both sides would be happy with a point, but Spain did not have their pregame doubts about the center forward role eased any. With Pizzi suspended, Amavisca would likely be given a chance to stake a claim for a start in the upcoming game against a tough France defensive line.
After impressing as a substitute in this game, Alfonso also would be pushing hard to start the important next game against the French.
Bulgaria will have been heartened by the impressive performance of star man Stoichkov, but coach Penev would need to replace the now suspended Hubchev in the heart of defense. Stoichkov would enter a tantalising battle of mercurial playmakers in the next game, going head to head with Gheorge Hagi of Romania.
65’ BUL Hristo Stoichkov PK (Emil Kostadinov) 0-1
74’ SPA Alfonso (Sergi) 1-1
MAN OF THE MATCH
LM Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria) – The star man lived up to his reputation with a goal and outstanding attacking performance throughout the game. Starting in a wide left position, Stoichkov floated into dangerous areas and was a constant thorn in the side of the Spanish defense.
3: RM Jose Luis Caminero – The hard working wide midfielder was a strong defensive presence and also a source for many dangerous Spanish attacks. A talented passer of the ball, the midfielder showed himself to be a key figure for Spain in the tournament ahead.
2: CM Fernando Hierro – Tough tackling midfielder who also possessed the ball well throughout the game, peppered the Bulgarian goal with a number of shots from outside the area.
1: GK Andoni Zubizarreta – The veteran goalkeeper played well and came off his line for some key interventions throughout the game.
3: LM Hristo Stouchkov – Man of the Match.
2: Borislav Mihaylov – Forced to make a number of impressive saves to keep Bulgaria in the game, and showed quick thinking to launch several productive counter attacks.
1: CM Yordan Letchkov – Showed good work rate on the defensive end, while also serving as an effective bridge between the Bulgarian defense and attack.