Todor Nedelev’s second-half double ended Northern Ireland’s slim World Cup hopes with a 2-1 defeat in Bulgaria which raised questions after another poor performance.
Northern Ireland looked rejuvenated and the quality of their play deserved more than the one-goal lead they held at half-time, as Conor Washington stabbed home the rebound after Josh Magennis’ header was saved, and a VAR review overruled the linesman’s raised flag.
Anything but a win was likely to leave qualification for Qatar mathematically impossible for Ian Baraclough’s side, and the manner of their second-half capitulation made it a certainty.
Bulgaria emerged a different team who the Green and White Army could not deal with, and an equaliser had been coming by the time Nedelev fired Ilian Iliev’s deflected cross into the far corner.
He would complete the turnaround 10 minutes later, striking a beautiful 20-yard effort past a helpless Bailey Peacock-Farrell 10 minutes later, a goal to which Northern Ireland had little response and allowed their faint qualifying hopes to end with a whimper.
Baraclough’s side drop to fourth, ahead of only Lithuania, in Group C after the defeat, a potentially damaging blow for their seeding hopes for the Euro 2024 qualifiers, and a 10th defeat from 18 games of the manager’s 16-month reign.
Where now for Northern Ireland after damning defeat?
Following Saturday’s defeat to Switzerland, only a perfect set of results would give them any hope of qualification for next year’s World Cup, and they set about their own task well enough in Sofia against a Bulgaria side chastened by a shock defeat to Lithuania last time out.
They attacked at will down the flanks, with Paddy McNair turning Shane Ferguson’s cross straight at Ivan Karadzhov with the goal gaping, before Washington seized on a heavy touch from Ivaylo Chochev at the resulting corner to pull another reaction save out of the goalkeeper.
Northern Ireland’s dominance was such that they were guilty of overplaying at times, with Bulgaria occasionally dangerous on the counter-attack without testing Peacock-Farrell. It needed an opener from the visitors, and on 35 minutes they got it.
Magennis’ header from Conor Bradley’s excellent cross was kept out by Karadzhov, who left Washington with the goal at his mercy to tap home on the rebound before the linesman’s flag cut short his celebrations. VAR would quickly intervene, with the Charlton striker comfortably onside.
The only thing missing from Northern Ireland’s first half was a killer second goal, and they would rue its absence almost from kick-off after the break, when the introduction of Iliev and a more confident Bulgaria emerged and turned the game on its head.
Northern Ireland had barely seen the ball outside of their half when an unmarked Nedelev took the substitute’s cross first time and beat Peacock-Farrell with a pinpoint effort.
“They’ve come out for the second half really sluggish and paid the price,” was former Northern Ireland defender Stephen Craigan’s assessment. Things did not improve as Bulgaria completed the turnaround just after the hour, with Nedelev striking Alanas Iliev’s knock-down sweetly into the roof of the net from just outside the box.
The closest Northern Ireland came to a response was a horribly wayward Jordan Thompson free-kick with five minutes remaining, which summed up an abysmal collapse from the Green and White Army which Sky Sports pundit Neil Lennon would label “abysmal”.
Defeat puts Northern Ireland fourth in Group C, needing to better Bulgaria’s results in their final two games to jump back to third and avoid a tougher qualification campaign for Euro 2024.
What the manager said…
Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough told Sky Sports: “It was a game we dominated first half, we created a good few chances and didn’t take them, apart from the goal. We came in at half-time and talked about getting the intensity up again, getting the ball moving, getting a foothold in the game again.
“They’ll have a spell where they’ll come at us, and we have to deal with it, make sure we’re winning second balls, all the little skirmishes in the game, and for a 20-minute spell in the second half, that stopped happening.”
- Northern Ireland have won just one of their last 10 World Cup/EURO qualifying matches (D3 L6), with that victory coming at Lithuania in September (4-1).
- Bulgaria have won their last two home qualifying matches (World Cup/EUROs), more than they had in their previous eight (W1 D1 L6 – incl. play-offs).
- After having six shots on target in the first half (their most in the opening 45 minutes of a competitive match since 2013), Northern Ireland failed to have a single attempt on target in the second half.
- Conor Washington has been involved in three goals in his last four appearances for Northern Ireland in all competitions (2 goals, 1 assist), more than he had in his previous 18 (1 goal, 1 assist).
- Todor Nedelev has scored three goals in his last three games for Bulgaria in all competitions, more than he had in his first 33 appearances for the national side (2).
Northern Ireland host bottom side Lithuania at Windsor Park in the next international break, on November 12; kick-off at 7.45pm.