Bulgaria sink Wales further into the quagmire

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The Independent Online
Bulgaria 3

Wales 1

Mike Smith's embattled Welsh team predictably found little joy against the World Cup semi-finalists in Sofia yesterday. Beaten 3-0 in Cardiff in the autumn, Wales at least managed to score this time, but another defeat means the end of any lingering hopes of qualification from Group Seven.

The Bulgarians had drafted in 200 soldiers to clear the pitch of the six inches of snow that had fallen overnight. The shivering home supporters had to wait 37 minutes for Krassimir Balakov to put their team ahead with a superb shot. Although Neville Southall gave an inspired display in the Welsh goal, there was nothing even he could do to prevent two second-half strikes from Valencia's Luboslav Penev.

However, Wales, to their credit, were a far different proposition to the team which had subsided to embarrassing losses against Moldova, Georgia and in the first meeting against the Bulgarians, and they gained some reward when Dean Saunders netted his 15th international goal seven minutes from the end.

Vinnie Jones' brief was to follow Hamburg's Yordan Lechkov, and the Wimbledon man stuck to his task with relish. With the captain, Barry Horne, adding an extra defensive shield in front of Chris Coleman and Andy Melville, Bulgaria were reduced to long-range efforts in the early stages.

In the 14th minute, Wales nearly scored when Ryan Giggs, back after a three-game absence, floated in a right-wing corner, Jones headed back across goal and Coleman, four yards out, saw his effort turned over by Borislav Mikhailov.

Arsenal's John Hartson was a lone front man on his international debut with Saunders forced to track back. Bulgaria's pressure was rewarded when Hristo Stoichkov slipped the ball to Balakov, and the midfielder who is on his way to VfB Stuttgart from Sporting Lisbon thumped the ball past the flailing fingers of Southall and in off the far post.

Southall, quite magnificent, denied Penev (twice) and Balakov and Wales might even have snatched a shock equaliser in the 68th minute when a dreadful error from Petar Hubchev saw a Saunders shot blocked by the diving Mikhailov.

Two minutes later, though, Balakov found some space down the right and crossed for Emil Kostadinov. The Bayern Munich man's shot might have defeated Southall but a big deflection off Penev's chest gave the goalkeeper no chance.

Swansea's John Cornforth made his debut in place of Jones 12 minutes from time but four minutes later Wales' fourth straight defeat - their worst sequence in 26 years - was confirmed. Stoichkov crossed from the left and Penev climbed high to head powerfully into the roof of the net.

Wales were able to make an instant reply. Giggs crossed from the left, and Saunders cracked a first-time effort into the net from 18 yards. It was, however, too little too late.

BULGARIA: Mikhailov (Levski Sofia); Kremenliev (Levski Sofia), Ivanov (Neuchtel Xamax), Zvetanov (Levski Sofia), Hubchev (Hamburg), Yankov (Valladolid), Kostadinov (Bayern Munich), Stoichkov (Barcelona), Penev (Valencia), Lechkov (Hamburg), Balakov (VfB Stuttgart). Substitute: Kiryakov (CSKA Sofia) for Zvetanov, 85.

WALES: Southall (Everton); Phillips (Nottingham Forest), Bowen (Norwich), Jones (Wimbledon), Melville (Sunderland), Coleman (Crystal Palace), Horne (Everton), Hartson (Arsenal), Saunders (Aston Villa), Speed (Leeds), Giggs (Manchester United). Substitute: Cornforth (Swansea) for Jones, 78.

Referee: M Piraux (Belgium).