The lowdown on England’s Euro 2020 qualifying opponents Bulgaria
England face Bulgaria on Monday night with the possibility of securing qualification to Euro 2020 if they win and other results go their way.
Ahead of the Group A meeting in Sofia, the PA news agency takes a closer look at the hosts.
Having not reached the finals of the European Championship or World Cup since Euro 2004, Bulgaria are in something of a rut.
Krasimir Balakov took charge in May but his side sit bottom of Group A with three points and no wins from their opening six matches.
England captain Harry Kane helped himself to a hat-trick as the Three Lions ran roughshod over the Bulgaria defence at Wembley last month, the 4-0 scoreline potentially even flattering the visitors.
A 92-cap Bulgaria international during his playing days, former midfielder Balakov was a popular choice as the nation’s new coach following his appointment earlier in the year.
Narrow defeats to the Czech Republic and Kosovo, as well as the thrashing in England, and a goalless draw away in Montenegro means he has not had the immediate impact he would have liked.
The 53-year-old has coached in Switzerland, Bulgaria, Croatia and Germany and also enjoyed a successful playing career – the highlight being named in the FIFA all-star team at the 1994 World Cup having helped Bulgaria to the semi-finals in the United States during a golden era for the national side.
The Vasil Levski National Stadium in Sofia would usually be close to its 46,000 capacity for the visit of a side such as England.
But 5,000 seats are closed off after anti-racism sanctions placed on Bulgaria by UEFA following incidents in qualifiers against Kosovo and the Czech Republic earlier in the year.
England manager Gareth Southgate has voiced his concerns over such an issue occurring on Monday, while his players have been briefed on UEFA’s three-step protocol to taking action against any racist behaviour.
Ashley Young was targeted on England’s last game at the stadium in 2011 but Southgate and his players will be wanting to leave with no repeat and three points in the bag this time around.
Balakov is rightly revered as one of Bulgaria’s best-ever players – most of whom come from the same generation around the early 1990s.
But there were none better than Hristo Stoichkov, who won five LaLigas and the Champions League with Barcelona.
None of the current crop can claim such achievements, the bulk of the players plying their trade in their homeland at the likes of Ludogorets and the Sofia clubs.
Captain Ivelin Popov plays for FC Rostov in Russia and has 16 goals from his 87 international caps, making him Bulgaria’s most potent and experienced player among Balakov’s squad.