Football: England bound by uncertainty

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The Independent Online
YOU CAN call it flexibility, or you can call it the sort of uncertainty that has been basic to England at international level for a long time now. Kevin Keegan and his staff tried everything they knew last night - three centre backs, a flat back four, a short-passing game, and even, at the death, route one - but they could not prevail over a skilful and volatile Bulgarian side.

A point preserves England's hopes of qualifying for Euro 2000 through the play-off system, but their failure to capitalise on the reduction of their rivals to 10 men after a sending-off just before the hour was less than entirely impressive.

Throughout football history, all great teams have possessed a clear structure which has served them well no matter what the circumstances or the opposition. Similarly, a great coach has a vision of how the game should be played. Keegan's first four games have confirmed that he favours attacking football, and is always willing to throw on an extra forward when the need is pressing, but have shown us little in the way of substance.

Once the fans of the two rival Sofia clubs, CSKA and Levski, had stopped abusing each other from the opposite ends of the tree-lined stadium, they turned their attention to drowning out the 2,000 or so England fans clustered on the south-west curve. But their attention was drawn in the minutes before the kick-off by a ceremony honouring Hristo Stoichkov, making his final appearance for Bulgaria on the ground where he came to fame. At the age of 33, Stoichkov's 37 goals from 83 apppearances bear comparison with the greatest of all his country's players, Hristo Bonev, whose 47 goals and 96 caps in the 1960s remain the record figures.

Stoichkov accepted bouquets from the two men he says had most influence on his career - Dimitar Penev, the recently-retired national coach, and Johan Cruyff, who took him to Barcelona, where the Bulgarian remains a revered figure. And within minutes he was showing that a year in Japan, where he has been picking up a salary of pounds 2m playing for Kashiva Reysol, has not diminished his appetite for leading his country to glory.

In the fourth minute, the great man's initial burst was checked by a brisk interception by Jonathan Woodgate, a 19-year-old making his first international appearance less than a year after he was a regular in Leeds United's youth team, and showing no nerves at all when confronted by one of the most feared strikers in modern football.

The match had got off to an enthralling start, the complex defensive systems adopted by both teams doing nothing to smother the initiative of their forwards. England won a series of corners through the consistent application of pressure, while the Bulgarians preferred to attack on the break, depending on the clever work of the much-coveted Milen Petkov down the left and the incisive passing of Stilian Petrov in central midfield, both of them playing on their club pitch. At the point of the attack, the speed of Hristo Yovov sounded a warning, but the pace of the old man Stoichkov also looked threatening.

After his battle with Woodgate, there was another confrontation when David Batty slid in to take the ball away from Stoichkov, who fell on top of him. As they both struggled to rise, the two hard men glaring at each other, there was a flicker of lightning and a momentary rumble of thunder in the humid Balkan air.

England's three first-half bookings seemed a contradiction of Keegan's desire that they should keep their noses clean, but the opening goal was the reward for attacking initiative by Sol Campbell and Michael Gray, and Alan Shearer's supporters will have been delighted by the way he fastened on to the loose ball in the penalty area, swivelled and struck a perfect shot. That was the old Shearer. The one who kept falling foul of referee for backing into his marker was the newer model.

But England had held their lead for less than five minutes when they paid the price for slack marking, Teddy Sheringham failing to prevent Georgi Markov reaching Stoichkov's flat, hard free-kick from the right. And their willingness to attack from the back almost brought them another setback just after the half-hour, when Campbell and Woodgate were stranded upfield as Stoichkov streaked down the left on to Ilian Iliev's pass, only to gesture with frustration as Yovov failed to meet his low cross to the far post. Given Stoichkov's noted lack of patience, it was probably not surprising that Yovov failed to reappear at the start of the second half.

Both teams lost their coherence after the restart as the game disintegrated in a flurry of fouls, culminating in the sending off of Martin Petrov, comforted on his progress to the tunnel by Stoichkov. Keegan's response to England's sudden numerical superiority was to throw on Ray Parlour and convert the defence to a back four, which on the face of it was was less than fair to Woodgate, who was removed to make way for the Arsenal man.

On his debut, Woodgate had performed his duties outstandingly. His penalty- area tackle on Martin Petrov three minutes into the second period, after the Bulgarian had latched on to Radostin Kishishev's pass, was a highlight of the match and demonstrated the young defender's maturity.

England's willingness to give the ball away was at the root of all the Bulgarian attacks. When Sheringham allowed himself to be robbed by Kishishev, the right wing-back made a brilliant 70-yard run which ended when Daniel Boromirov fell under a tackle in the area, with Stoichkov gesturing furious in space on the right. It was to be the last act of his international career, since he left the pitch a couple of minutes later, shaking the referee's hand and applauding all corners of the ground as he made his final exit with the fate of the game still in the balance.