Niall McGinn’s wonder strike on Sunday evening provided the GAWA with a glimmer of optimism going into Wednesday’s must-win clash against Bulgaria. In reality, we all knew that this was the game that really mattered. Time will tell whether the squad can end this international break on a high.

A trip to Italy was always going to be a tough start, but an impressive second half performance left Baraclough wondering how we hadn’t, at least, found the back of the net. Fast forward to Sunday and although the USA were probably the better side, the likes of Ballard (again), Brown, Lavery and Charles all impressed, as a deflected goal and a questionable penalty were required for the Yanks to come out on top.

Baraclough made 10 changes on Sunday, and although some put their hand up to be involved from the start versus the Bulgarians, we can expect substantial changes again. Peacock-Farrell is expected to replace Hazard in goal, although the Celtic man hardly put a foot wrong against the USA. Brown or Ballard may just have done enough to feature alongside the experienced Evans and Cathcart in the centre of defence. Lewis’s successful second half cameo may see Dallas pushed into midfield, with Smith’s long throw-ins likely to be an effective tool.

Davis is set to become the most-capped British player of all time when he steps out in a Northern Ireland shirt for the 126th time, likely to be partnered by the in-form McNair. Finally, Magennis and Whyte are expected to return, with Lafferty, Lavery and Charles ready to pounce off the bench if required.

Bulgaria travel to Belfast for their third game in Group C also in search of their first point. To date, they have lost 3-1 to Switzerland, before a 2-0 defeat to Italy – both at home in Sofia. Like us, the Bulgarians are hoping for their first competitive win since 2019 with the most recent coming against the Czech Republic in Euro 2020 qualification.

The majority of the Bulgaria squad play their trade in their national league at the likes of Ludogrets, CSKA Sofia, Lokomotiv Plovdiv and Arda – not to be confused with Ards! Interestingly, former Ards manager and ex-Northern Ireland international Warren Feeney is currently managing Pirin Blagoevgrad in the Bulgarian second tier. They currently sit three points clear at the top of the Vtora Liga.

The importance of Wednesday’s game cannot be understated. It will be Baraclough’s eleventh game in charge and he is still searching for his first win in 90 minutes. We have lost our last three clashes against Bulgaria, but they are at their weakest for a number of years. A win at Windsor Park will provide some much needed impetus going into the winnable clashes away to Lithuania and home to Switzerland in June.

LAST TIME AROUND

Northern Ireland 0
Bulgaria 1 (M.Petrov 38)

6th February 2008, Friendly

HEAD TO HEAD

NI wins: 2
Draws: 1
Bulgaria wins: 4

PREDICTED NORTHERN IRELAND LINE-UP

Peacock-Farrell, Smith, Ballard, J.Evans, Cathcart, Lewis, Davis, McNair, Dallas, Whyte, Magennis

SCORE PREDICTION

Northern Ireland 2 Bulgaria 1