Nigeria Beats Bulgaria to Reach Second Round
By Howard Fendrich
Friday, June 19, 1998; 3:20 p.m. EDT
Victor Ikpeba closed a swift three-man combination in the 27th minute Friday as Nigeria, which looked so out of synch in tune-up games, used superior speed and surprising ball control to outlast Bulgaria, 1-0, and stay atop Group D.
Adding to its 3-2 victory over Spain, Nigeria has six points and can finish no worse than second in the group. Bulgaria, a semifinalist in 1994, has one point and a remaining game against Spain.
With temperatures in the mid-80s at the Parc des Princes, the Africans pushed from the opening kickoff and had more chances.
Bulgaria played a slower and more deliberate pace, which Nigeria, known more for its flair than organization, managed to handle better than it usually does.
"Bulgaria played a frustrating, irritating game,'' midfielder Sunday Oliseh said. "We were running; they were waiting.''
The Europeans started seven players 29 years of age or older, compared to just two for Nigeria.
"''I was happy with the first half, but then we had to be careful not to push up too far in the second half,'' Milutinovic said.
He is the first coach to lead four teams to the second round at the World Cup, after Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990 and the United States in 1994.
The Yugoslavian native's job was reportedly in jeopardy after Nigeria dropped World Cup tuneups to Germany, Yugoslavia and Netherlands by a combined 9-1.
On Friday, Nigeria's superior speed began to pay off midway through the first half as its players repeatedly turned defenders and broke into open spaces.
The goal came off a lightning-quick exchange.
Left back Celestine Babayaro brought the ball up the left flank and slid it to Jay-Jay Okocha, who found Daniel Amokachi at the top right corner of the penalty area. Amokachi deftly side-footed the ball to Ikpeba in the middle of the box.
The AS Monaco striker, Africa's 1997 Player of the Year, eluded sweeper Trifon Ivanov and rolled the ball just under goalie Zdravko Zdravkov's right arm.
"We attack because that is the style that fits Nigeria best,'' Ikpeda said. "Bora has come to understand this, and to try to change us at this time would not be wise.''
Nigeria's defense again was far from perfect. Goalkeeper Peter Rufai and his backs got crossed up often, but Bulgaria -- which lost 3-0 to Nigeria in the 1994 tournament -- never was able to convert.
"I think that we were the better team on the day. Tactically, too, we were better,'' Bulgaria Coach Hristo Bonev said. "We stopped Nigeria from playing the game they wanted to play.''
Winger Emil Kostadinov almost tied the score with three minutes remaining, but his shot skimmed off the crossbar.
Krassimir Balakov produced a strong threat in the 42nd, splitting two defenders with a header and then sending a lob over midfielder Mutiu Adepoju and a charging Rufai, but the ball bounced just wide of the empty net.
Then Hristo Stoichkov, who shared the scoring title at the last World Cup, pushed the ball wide right of the post in the 66th and dropped to the ground in frustration.
Nwankwo Kanu, who had surgery 19th months ago to replace a weak heart valve, made his tournament debut in the 67th minute, coming on for Amokachi. The Inter Milan striker nearly scored with his first touch, but the left-footed blast from the box was fisted over the crossbar by Zdravkov and Nigeria missed other chances to put the game away late.
"For people who like the spectacular, we make it spectacular,'' Milutinovic said.
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press