After escaping with a point from Rome in their most recent World Cup Qualifying fixture, Switzerland welcome already eliminated Bulgaria to Lucerne on Monday, seeking a win which could earn them a ticket to Qatar.
While the Swiss must better Italy’s result – or match them and improve their goal difference by three – to top Group C and progress to the finals automatically, their Balkan counterparts are playing only for pride and the chance to finish third in the standings.
Having exhaled a collective sigh of relief when Jorginho blazed a late penalty attempt over the crossbar at Stadio Olimpico on Friday night, Switzerland’s hopes of avoiding the World Cup playoffs and taking the direct route to the Middle East remain intact.
With only stoppage time left to play, the Italy midfielder spurned a chance to effectively seal qualification by missing from the spot in Rome, following Silvan Widmer’s bullet-like finish to open the scoring for the Swiss and Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s headed leveller.
An entertaining encounter therefore ended in a 1-1 draw – the teams’ second of the process, following a September stalemate in Basel – leaving the Group C’s top two tied on points and Switzerland trailing only by two on goal difference.
While the Azzurri will travel to Belfast to meet Northern Ireland, Murat Yakin’s second-placed side now return home in pursuit of a potentially vital win over Bulgaria. Indeed, if they can significantly outscore the Italians in the event of both sides winning, then Switzerland would reach a fifth consecutive World Cup finals without needing to participate in the playoffs next spring.
The Nati previously beat Northern Ireland 2-0 and Lithuania 4-0 during a successful October get-together, and are also hoping to build on a memorable Euro 2020 campaign, when they reached the quarter-finals after a penalty shootout win over reigning world champions France.
While they cannot control their own destiny entirely on Monday night, they will be certainly be confident of victory against a side they dispatched 3-1 in Bulgaria some seven months ago.
While the Bulgarians will not be heading for Qatar next year – representing a sixth successive failure to qualify – their recent improvement should offer them hope of a closer outcome than when they last met Switzerland in Sofia.
Bulgaria’s transition to a more youthful squad has continued this year, with a dismal run of results now gradually starting to turn, though the globe’s 70th-ranked nation still have a long way to go to emulate the legendary squad that reached the semi-finals of USA ’94.
As Yasen Petrov’s current side recovered from the setback of losing to lowly Lithuania in the first match of October’s qualifying double-header, they went on to beat Northern Ireland through a Todor Nedelev brace, which proved the difference against their closest rivals for third place in Group C.
After the Green and White Army went on to win their game in hand on Friday, though, Bulgaria must now better their counterparts’ result against Italy if they are to claim the consolation of finishing ‘best of the rest’ behind the group’s top two.
A run of just one loss from five games – including determinedly holding Italy to a 1-1 draw in Florence – was extended to six in the Lions’ last outing, as they drew 1-1 with Ukraine in a friendly. Therefore, Petrov can at least hope to spring a shock in Switzerland, and keep the positive trend going.
Switzerland World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Switzerland form (all competitions):
Bulgaria World Cup Qualifying – Europe form:
Bulgaria form (all competitions):
We say: Switzerland 2-0 Bulgaria
Strong favourites Switzerland should take care of business in Lucerne, but will still rely on Northern Ireland to do them a favour in the other high-stakes Group C clash – the result of which could decide their destiny.
Bulgaria have shown definite signs of life in recent months after a bleak few years in the wilderness, but will find one of the top-ranked nations too hot to handle, despite their numerous injury absences.