AND SO to Poland... again. Just as they have on so many other occasions since 1973, England's chances of qualifying for a major championships will again depend on a match against Poland.
Last night's draw in Bulgaria, when England lost a lead in the first half and failed to capitalise on playing against 10 men for most of the second, left them needing to defeat Luxembourg on 4 September and Poland four days later just to secure a place in the play-offs between the second teams in the qualifying groups.
England played well in parts last night, certainly better than they did against Sweden on Saturday, and deserved the lead earned by Alan Shearer's 24th England goal in the 14th minute.
However, four minutes later they allowed Georgi Markov to equalise, and even the dismissal of Martin Petrov after 58 minutes was not enough to enable England to follow the lead shown by Sweden and Poland and win here.
England began brightly, pressing the midfield and carrying the game to their hosts. A series of early corners were won without reward and it seemed the fates were against them when Jamie Redknapp, from 25 yards out, scored with a spectacular free-kick only to have it ruled out as the referee, Mario van der Ende, had been attending to some penalty box argy-bargy.
Three minutes later England's fortunes received a dramatic lift. A quickly taken throw-in by Sol Campbell released Michael Gray on the left and he crossed deep to the far post. Rosen Kirilov, under pressure from Robbie Fowler, only half-cleared, allowing Shearer to seize upon the loose ball, turn quickly and shoot into the corner.
The large bank of England fans celebrated and, as the home crowd went quiet, it seemed the visitors had taken a grip on the match. But Stoichkov, having been feted beforehand, was not going to let his international farewell drift to such an anti-climax. Left unmarked from one free-kick he had a shot blocked then, after Campbell gave away another free-kick, he created the equaliser. He took the kick himself, whipping the ball to the far post where Markov got in front of Teddy Sheringham to head in for his first goal for his country. It was only the second goal Bulgaria had scored against England in eight meetings, and the first in front of their own fans.
The decibel level returned to its previous intensity and England's chances were once again in the balance. The game was fast and open, as might be expected of one involving a Keegan side. It was attractive to watch but it meant England occasionally found themselves stretched and quickly acquired a trio of bookings, for Fowler, Gareth Southgate and Sheringham, as they sought to retrieve the ball having lost it.
Redknapp saw plenty of possession but Sheringham was peripheral and Fowler looked very rusty. Fortunately Shearer looked back to his old self and gave the attack a focus. In defence Jonathon Woodgate looked very composed, if occasionally caught out by the different rhythms of the international game.
Stoichkov, watched by Johan Cruyff, his former coach at Barcelona, raised the crowd with a run and shot which flew wide then, with seven minutes of the half remaining, appeared to have created another Bulgarian goal. With England's defenders having been sucked forward, Campbell lost a challenge on the edge of the box and, although Gray seemed to hold the move up, when Bulgaria worked the ball clear it was two-against-two.
Stoichkov outpaced Southgate and rolled a tempting cross into the six- yard box. Hristo Yovov seemed certain to score but, perhaps distracted by David Batty, put the ball wide of the open goal.
Bulgaria reappeared after half-time with a new striker, Martin Petrov, and a renewed sense of urgency. Twice in the early minutes passes from Radostin Kishishev opened up the England defence, Stoichkov shot over from the first and Woodgate made a magnificent tackle on Martin Petrov from the second.
England, however, regained the midfield supremacy and, despite urgings from a cheerleader on the public address system, contary to Uefa regulations, the cacophony began to dim. On the pitch the tension remained high with Phil Neville becoming England's fourth booking and, significantly, Martin Petrov becoming Bulgaria's second for a foul on Neville.
Five minutes later the big centre-forward followed through on Campbell after the defender had headed clear and, in the context of what had gone before, a second yellow card and dismissal was inevitable. With the crowd in uproar Stoichkov led the tearful striker off the pitch.
Bulgaria's response was to bring on another forward, England's was to go to a flat back four with Ray Parlour coming on for Woodgate.
Sheringham put a header wide after Shearer had flicked on a right-wing cross, Fowler put a pair of half-chances wide and Batty brought a diving save from Dimitar Ivankov but England, in truth, appeared to take little benefit from their numerical advantage. Instead the best chance fell to the other Petrov, Stilian, who shot rashly over the bar from 20 yards.
With eight minutes left Keegan introduced Emile Heskey allowing the Bulgarian spectators, who had jeered Campbell whenever they could, to double their opportunities for racial abuse. He did force a save from Ivankov, but had reacted slowly to the chance.
England reacted at the end as if they had lost rather than drawn. A despondent Alan Shearer said: "Again we didn't create, we didn't pass the ball. There is the will to win but the passing isn't good enough."
BULGARIA (3-5-2): Ivankov (Levski Sofia); Markov (Lokomotiv Sofia), Zagorcic (Litex Lovech), Kirilov (Litex Lovech); Kishishev (Litex Lovech), S Petrov (CSKA Sofia), Stoilov (Slavia Sofia), Iliev (Levski Sofia), M Petkov (CSKA Sofia); Stoichkov (Kashiwa Reysol), Yovov (Lokomotiv Sofia). Substitutes: M Petrov (Servette) for Yovov, h-t, Borimirov (TSV Munich 1860) for Iliev, 60; Bachev (Levski Sofia) for Stoichkov, 73
ENGLAND (3-4-2-1): Seaman (Arsenal); Woodgate (Leeds United), Southgate (Aston Villa), Campbell (Tottenham); P Neville (Manchester United), Batty (Leeds United), Redknapp (Liverpool), Gray (Sunderland); Sheringham (Manchester United), Fowler (Liverpool); Shearer (Newcastle United). Substitutes: Parlour (Arsenal) for Woodgate, 68; Heskey (Leicester) for Fowler, 83.
Referee: M van der Ende (Netherlands).
Richard Williams, page 28Reuse content