Following weekend defeats which effectively ended their playoff hopes, Bulgaria and Northern Ireland meet in World Cup Qualifying Group C on Tuesday.
While the Green and White Army were beaten by Switzerland in controversial circumstances, the Bulgarians slipped up against lowly Lithuania in Vilnius – leaving both sides now battling only for pride.
Still hoping for rather than expecting a push for the playoff place available for finishing second in the group, Northern Ireland travelled to Switzerland in search of three crucial points to keep their dreams of a first World Cup appearance since 1986 alive.
However, when the visitors had Jamal Lewis harshly sent off for time-wasting during the first half, Murat Yakin’s home side assumed complete control, as Steven Zuber and Christian Fassnacht scored in stoppage time at the end of each half to give them a 2-0 victory.
With the Swiss now six points ahead of the Green and White Army in the Group C standings with only three games remaining, Ian Baraclough’s men know their chances of catching them – and therefore of making it to Qatar – are all but over.
Baraclough now has a record of only three wins from 17 games since taking charge, and he has so far fallen short in the task of producing contenders from limited resources.
A relatively successful run, during which they beat rock-bottom Lithuania, plus drew against both Bulgaria and the Swiss – allied to a friendly win over Estonia – had helped his squad recover from a previous eight-game winless streak. However, they must now bounce back in Sofia, following a heavy blow to their aspirations.
Though they dominated for large spells in the reverse fixture at Windsor Park, the Euro 2016 finalists were unable to break down the Bulgarians last time the nations met, in March, having to settle for a point following a goalless draw.
That match perfectly illustrated the difficulties Northern Ireland have endured in front of goal this year, and they have scored just four times so far on the road to Qatar.
Much like their visitors on Tuesday, lacklustre Bulgaria have failed to fire in the final third, with the same tally of goals as Northern Ireland despite having played an extra game.
Currently undergoing the transition from an experienced unit to a younger squad, Yasen Petrov’s side did at least manage to find the net at the weekend, but were nonetheless humbled by Lithuania at the LFF Stadium.
Offered an excellent opportunity to open the scoring in the 14th minute, when they were awarded a penalty, captain Dimitar Iliev proceeded to strike his spot kick straight at the goalkeeper; and shortly afterwards, Justas Lasickas gave the hosts the lead.
Despite Kiril Despodov’s equaliser in the second half, Lithuania then became the dominant force, and after striking the crossbar they broke the Bulgarians’ resistance with two goals from Fedor Cernych in the final few minutes.
Hopes of an unlikely contest for second place had risen after the Lions held on for a hard-earned 1-1 draw against Italy in Florence last month, before following up with a win in the home tie with the Lithuanians, but now they must keep one eye over their shoulder if they are to avoid finishing last in the group.
The Balkan nation have fallen upon hard times in recent years – winning just three of their last 27 matches – and have failed to qualify for the World Cup finals since 1998; four years after famously finishing fourth at USA ’94. Whatever the result on Tuesday, Bulgaria’s drought is set to continue, but they will still expect to pose problems for a depleted Northern Ireland side.
Bulgaria World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Bulgaria form (all competitions):
Northern Ireland World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Northern Ireland form (all competitions):
We say: Bulgaria 1-1 Northern Ireland
Both sides lack potency in the penalty area, which accounts for their inability to secure enough points for a realistic shot at qualification for next winter’s global gathering in the Middle East.
While Bulgaria boast more credible options in the final third, Northern Ireland are renowned for their gritty application for good reason, and can therefore grind out a point at Stadion Vassil Levski.