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Bulgaria, Paraguay Break New Ground in a 0-0 Tie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hristo Stoitchkov has not changed in the four years since we last saw him. The Bulgarian is still as prickly as ever, both in his unshaven look and temperament.

Stoitchkov was in the thick of things Friday in Montpellier, where Bulgaria and Paraguay battled to a scoreless tie in a Group D game that seldom rose to any great heights.

It did, however, provide a couple of World Cup ’98 firsts.

Saudi Arabian referee Abdul Rahman Al-Zeid became the first to strictly enforce the rule on tackles from behind, issuing the first red card of the tournament.

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With less than four minutes to play, Al-Zeid tossed Bulgarian midfielder Anatoli Nankov out of the game for a blatant foul on Paraguay’s Juan Carlos Yegros, who plays for Cruz Azul in the Mexican League.

Nankov, a 28-year-old from Locomotiv Sofia, came in very late on a sliding tackle, crashing studs-first into Yegros’ ankle. He did not argue overly long or loudly against the red card, which means he is suspended for the next game.

By that time, of course, both teams had pretty much settled for a 0-0 tie, another tournament first.

Played on a sunny afternoon at Stade de la Mosson, the game was more physical than those that preceded it. The Bulgarians came out fast and hard, and for the first half-hour or so it seemed the they would rout their South American foes.

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But the Paraguayan defense, with Carlos Gamarra and Celso Ayala looking especially confident, held firm. Bulgaria saw shots by Krassimir Balakov, Stoitchkov and Ilian Iliev either sail wide or be comfortably saved by Jose Luis Chilavert, Paraguay’s inspirational captain and goalkeeper.

Chilavert’s only nervous moment came in the 35th minute when Stoitchkov rounded two defenders and fired an off-balance shot that hit the right post before rebounding clear.

As the half wore on, Bulgaria kept up most of the pressure but did not have the imagination to get past the Paraguayan defenders and create clear scoring chances.

Stoitchkov, well marked by the defense, became increasingly frustrated, and Al-Zeid had to step between him and Paraguayan players on a couple of occasions when tempers threatened to explode.

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The only untoward incident, however, came as the result of an accidental clash of heads that left Balakov to play most of the half in an oversized bandage, with a shock of hair sticking out the top. Not quite the fashion statement of France 98.

The second 45 minutes belonged to Paraguay, a fact well illustrated by Bulgarian Coach Hristo Bonev, who spent most of it on his feet, furiously chain-smoking while staring nervously at the play before him.

Bulgaria, which finished fourth under Stoitchkov’s inspiration in the USA ’94 World Cup, had not changed its lineup much in four years and claimed it still had the legs to compete at this level. But there were definite signs of tiring as Paraguay took control.

With Roberto Acuna pulling the strings in midfield and players such as Yegros, Miguel Benitez and Jorge Campos working tirelessly, the South Americans kept creating half-chances but never really threatened Bulgarian goalkeeper Zdravko Zdravkov.

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The only real difficulty Zdravkov was caused came on a free kick in the 78th minute that Chilavert strode upfield to take.

Chilavert, an extrovert goalkeeper who has scored frequently on free kicks and penalty kicks for club and country--including one memorable goal against Argentina--sent a wickedly swerving and dipping shot toward the upper-left corner of the Bulgarian net.

Zdravkov leaped to tip the ball over the bar, and Chilavert turned and stomped off, holding his head in his gloved hands and bemoaning the near miss.

Paraguay, urged on by its Brazilian coach, Paulo Cesar Carpeggiani, and with the man advantage after Nankov’s red card, had the Bulgarian defense at sixes and sevens in the closing moments as its players buzzed in and out of the penalty area in desperate search of a goal.

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But if Paraguay’s strength is defense, its glaring weakness is finishing. Almost every shot taken was off target or straight at the relieved Zdravkov.

“We lacked poise to finish the plays,” Carpeggiani said. “We always missed the last pass.”

In the end, after the final whistle, Chilavert and Stoitchkov walked off the field together, each applauding their respective fans. A share of the points seemed a fair result.


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