Bulgaria will be looking to continue their impressive start under new manager Mladen Krstajic when they host Montenegro in the first round of Euro 2024 qualifying on Friday.
Joining Hungary, Lithuania and Serbia in Group G, Bulgaria and Montenegro will both fancy their chances of reaching the competition proper in Germany next year, but a strong start is vital.
Following the resignation of Yasen Petrov, Bulgaria appointed Mladen Krstajic as manager in July 2022, and the new boss wasted no time in turning things around.
The Lions kick-started the Krstajic era with a 5-1 thrashing of Gibraltar before claiming clean-sheet victories over North Macedonia and Bulgaria, with a goalless draw against Luxembourg in November capping off a four-game unbeaten streak.
Having recorded three wins and one draw since Krstajic’s arrival – scoring eight goals while conceding just once – the Bulgarians will be confident of enjoying a successful qualifying campaign in the coming months.
Bulgaria have only featured at two European Championships over the years, exiting at the group stage in 1996 and 2004, so Krstajic’s men could be the team to end the nation’s two-decade wait for major tournament football.
As for the Brave Falcons, they have failed to qualify for each of the four European Championships since Serbia and Montenegro’s disbandment back in 2006.
In fact, Montenegro endured a winless qualifying campaign for Euro 2020, recording three draws and five losses to finish rock bottom of their group, with three goals scored and 22 conceded.
Miodrag Radulovic replaced Faruk Hadzibegic as manager following that campaign, but the current boss has failed to transform the team’s fortunes, overseeing six wins, six draws and 10 losses since taking the reins in December 2020.
Not only have Montenegro failed to win any of their last four games – suffering three defeats without scoring – but they have also managed to win just one of their previous seven, so Radulovic’s men will likely struggle to hit the ground running in Razgrad.
Fourteen of the 24 players in Mladen Krstajic’s squad play their club football in Bulgaria, with captain Kiril Despodov and fellow forward Spas Delev among the notable inclusions.
Having already made four appearances for the Lions, 18-year-old Inter Milan midfielder Nikola Iliev could join Werder Bremen’s Ilia Gruev in the host’s midfield.
Ivan Dyulgerov, Ivaylo Markov, Hristiyan Petrov and Stanislav Shopov are all in line to make their international debuts on Friday, although the newcomers are expected to start on the bench.
With 31 international goals under his belt, Montenegro captain Stevan Jovetic will lead the line for the visitors, while Atletico Madrid centre-back Stefan Savic will marshal the defence.
Lazio’s Adam Marusic is likely to join Savic in the backline, with Celtic’s Sead Haksabanovic expected to operate in a more advanced role.
Vladan Bubanja is the only member of Montenegro’s squad without a senior international cap, so the 24-year-old midfielder will be eager to prove himself to Miodrag Radulovic.
Bulgaria possible starting lineup:
Vutsov; Galabov, Antov, Hristov, Nedyalkov; Kirilov, Krastev, Gruev, Iliev; Despodov, Delev
Montenegro possible starting lineup:
Mijatovic; Vesovic, Vujacic, Savic, Murasic; Jovovic, Scekic, Vukcevic, Haksabanovic; Jovetic, Mugosa