Northern Ireland came up short against Bulgaria in a FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifier in Sofia tonight.
The disappointing 2-1 defeat in the Vasil Levski National Stadium put paid to their slim chances of reaching a World Cup play-off.
Following the 2-0 loss to Switzerland in European Qualifying Group C at the weekend hopes were high that Ian Baraclough’s boys could bounce back. However, it was not to be.
As well as taking the lead in the first half they also created and missed some good chances in the opening 45 minutes - and their failure to convert those opportunities ultimately proved costly as the Bulgarians prevailed thanks to two second half goals.
Bulgaria, who were defeated 3-1 by Lithuania in Vilnius at the weekend, had only four players in their line-up who started against Northern Ireland in the 0-0 draw in Belfast back in March.
The first chance of the game fell the home side’s way. Northern Ireland keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell comfortably held a curling free-kick from Todor Nedelev.
Jordan Thompson latched on to a sloppy Bulgarian pass and ran at the home defence before firing a low shot towards goal, however Bulgaria keeper Ivan Karadzhov dived to his left to keep it out.
Northern Ireland carved out a great opening on 17 minutes. Conor Washington chased a long ball and fed it to Shane Ferguson down the left. He whipped in a superb cross to the back post for Paddy McNair whose close range header was acrobatically pushed out by Karadzhov.
Minutes later the Bulgarian keeper produced another good stop, this time getting down low to push away a low Washington strike.
On 21 minutes Ferguson teed up Thompson but again his powerful low shot was kept out by Karadzhov.
Bulgaria captain Kiril Despodov broke clear of the Northern Ireland defence, however he was eventually closed down by Peacock-Farrell and the covering defender, Craig Cathcart.
Northern Ireland opened the scoring on 35 minutes when Josh Magennis fired in a low shot which was pushed out by the keeper and Washington nipped in to steer the rebound home. Initially the goal was ruled out for offside, however it stood following a VAR check.
Conor Bradley, making his first start for Northern Ireland, looked composed and assured in the first half and made some intelligent runs. He also did well in the defensive third.
Bulgaria equalised in the 53rd minute through Nedelev, a player whom Ian Baraclough had earmarked as being dangerous. The midfielder pivoted as a cross came in down the left and slammed the ball past Peacock-Farrell from 15 yards.
Midfielder Ivaylo Chochev stung the Northern Ireland keeper’s hands with a shot from distance before Paddy McNair produced an excellent run down the flank and headed for goal. His crisp low drive from just inside the by-line was kept out by the Bulgarian keeper’s feet at the near post.
Yasen Petrov’s team’s tails were up following their goal and they took the lead on 63 minutes thanks to another first class strike from Nedelev. He smashed the ball into the top corner from 20 yards, and it proved to be the winner.
Peacock-Farrell had to be on his toes again minutes later when a swift Bulgarian counter attack saw the ball fed to Despodov by Chochev. The striker let fly but the keeper managed to keep his effort out.
On 84 minutes substitute Dion Charles was upended just outside the area. Thompson stepped up to take the free-kick but fired his effort high over the bar.
Steven Davis, winning his 130th cap for his country, tried to rally the troops along with substitute Stuart Dallas but it was to no avail.
The final chance of the game was created by the Bulgarians. Another swift counter attack ended with Despodov curling an effort wide of the post.
Northern Ireland: Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Conor Bradley, Daniel Ballard, Craig Cathcart, Tom Flanagan, Shane Ferguson, Paddy McNair, Steven Davis (captain), Josh Magennis, Conor Washington, Jordan Thompson. Substitutes: (used) Jordan Jones, Stuart Dallas, Niall McGinn, Dion Charles; (unused) Conor Hazard, Liam Hughes, Carl Winchester, Paul Smyth, Alfie McCalmont, Ciaron Brown.
Bulgaria: Ivan Karadzhov, Ivan Turitsov, Andrea Hristov, Radoslav Tsonev, Todor Nedelev, Kiril Despodov (captain), Borislav Tsonev, Ivaylo Chochev, Atanas Iliev, Dimitar Velkovski. Substitutes: Martin Lukov (GK), Svetoslav Vutsov (GK), Birsent Karagaren, Dominic Yankov, Spas Delev, Radoslav Kirilov, Petar Vitanov, Vasil Bozhikov, Kristiyan Malinov, Kaloyan Krastev, Dimitar Iliev, Ilian Iliev.