A promising second half performance against Italy and an encouraging effort in our friendly with the US saw hopes high as we took on Bulgaria in our first home fixture of the World Cup Qualifying campaign. But encouraging performances count for nothing, especially when no points are accrued. If Northern Ireland were to stand any chance for qualification for Qatar 2022, then this meeting with an inexperienced Bulgarian side was a must win. Fast forward 90 minutes and who would have thought that Bailey Peacock-Farrell would be the player standing between faint hope and a humiliating home defeat.
Shayne Lavery worked tirelessly against the USA on Sunday, so it was a surprise to see both he and our MOTM Ciaron Brown not included in the squad at all. Instead, Ian Baraclough stuck largely with the team that lost in Parma, the exception a return for Jamal Lewis, and starts for Ballard and Saville.
The forward partnership of Josh Magennis and Gavin Whyte remained unchanged. Northern Ireland have not scored any more than a single goal in any game under Baraclough, so many hoped to see a start for Dion Charles, despite the gaffer sticking to the 3-5-2 formation that didn’t work last time round. Or the time before that.
Bulgaria showed potential on the counterattack and came close to scoring against Italy on Sunday. However, with a new manager and a young, inexperienced team, Northern Ireland had to create and take their opportunities.
It was a slow start, with Steven Davis – now having broken the British record for international appearances – dictating much of the play from midfield. A decent left-wing cross from Magennis early doors found Stuart Dallas heading onto the crossbar. It was looking likely Northern Ireland were positioning themselves well to exploit a vulnerable Bulgarian defence.
Despite being teammates at Hull, Whyte and Magennis did not seem to feed off each other for the entire first half. Whyte was drifting out wide and Magennis drawing back, so the likelihood of a goal diminished as the half went on, despite us dominating the play.
A Despodov free kick shortly before half-time created unnecessary anguish for BPF as Craig Cathcart came running in for a ball that should have been safe in his hands.
0-0 at half time was disappointing. It was evident that despite best intentions and our ability to create chances, we are simply unable to capitalise on opportunities. We know that Niall McGinn and Dion Charles can score goals, so to see the second half start with no changes didn’t bode well. Bulgaria had made two by this stage, keen to not simply settle for a point away from home.
Paddy McNair was looking more comfortable in his midfield role, with both he and Dallas responsible for deliveries. McNair produced several threatening crosses into the box, but none to trouble Naumov and few providing opportunities for shots on target.
After the break a volley from Gavin Whyte drew a decent save from Naumov. Despite obvious training ground rehearsals, twelve corners only provided two opportunities for Danny Ballard and Jonny Evans to head over. Not good enough.
Baraclough swapped Whyte for Niall McGinn and, astonishingly Saville and Ballard for Matty Kennedy and Michael Smith. We knew McGinn could be a threat but otherwise a strange choice of substitutions.
With only 15 minutes remaining surely it was time to throw caution to the wind and bring on Dion Charles for Magennis, but instead Kyle Lafferty was thrown in to provide what can only be assumed as an ariel threat to McNair’s deliveries, if indeed there were to be any more!
A decent pass by Dallas into the box on 88 minutes gave us a great opportunity, but Big Josh fluffed his first touch and shot well wide, summing up our woes.
We had run out of ideas and these latest changes, if anything, saw our threat diminish. It was clear we were not going to get the points required and this was rubber-stamped in injury time. A corner from Despodov found the head of first-half substitute Iliev, drawing a remarkable, reaction save from Peacock-Farrell. Suddenly, from villain in Parma to hero tonight, a scoreless draw was looking like a good result.
And that’s how it was. Northern Ireland can take heart they have a single point in the Group table and are very lucky to have it. Where we go from now is up to Baraclough. It’s tough on him, especially given that performances under his management have not been that bad.
Bulgaria offered almost nothing and were there for the taking. Baraclough’s favoured 3-5-2 has proven ineffective, so he has just under five months before we travel to Lithuania to think about how he’s going to turn this around if that indeed is even a remote possibility.
Northern Ireland 0
Peacock-Farrell, Cathcart, J.Evans, Ballard (Smith 74), Lewis, McNair, Saville (Kennedy 74), Dallas, Davis (c), Whyte (McGinn 64), Magennis (Lafferty 82)
Subs Not Used: Hazard, Hughes, McLaughlin, C.Evans, Ferguson, Charles, McCann, Thompson
Naumov, Antov, P.Hristov, A.Hristov, Chochev, Kostadinov (c) (Vitanov 43), Vutov (D.Iliev 46), Yomov (Karagaren 72), Despodov, Galabinov (A.Iliev 73), Tsvetanov (Zanev 73)
Subs Not Used: P.Iliev, Karadzhov, Bozhikov, Dimov, Malinov, Vitanov, Delev
Not Brazil MOTM: BPF