Northern Ireland’s flickering hopes of World Cup qualification were extinguished on a soggy night in Sofia as they were sunk by Todor Nedelev’s second-half double.
Three days after losing in Switzerland, Ian Baraclough’s side simply had to win to stand any chance of progressing from Group C – although a comfortable victory for the Swiss in Lithuania would have made that virtually impossible anyway.
Still, Northern Ireland will be bitterly disappointed at the way they allowed this game to get away from them after dominating the first half.
Northern Ireland have been leapfrogged in their World Cup qualifying group by Bulgaria
The visitors went ahead in Sofia but a double from Todor Nedelev secured a win for Bulgaria
Nedelev scored a stunning second goal from outside the box to hand his side all three points
Bulgaria (4-4-2): Karadzhov; Turitsov, P Hristov, A Hristov, Velkovski; Chochev, R Tsonev (I Iliev 46), B Tsonev (Malinov 73), Nedelev (Yankov 73); Despodov (Bozhikov 90+2), A Iliev (Krastev 79). Subs: Lukov, Vutsov, Karagaren, Delev, Kirilov, Vitanov, D Iliev.
Scorer: Nedelev 53, 63
Northern Ireland (5-3-2): Peacock-Farrell; Bradley (Jones 68), Ballard (McGinn 82), Cathcart, Flanagan, Ferguson; McNair, Davis, Thompson; Magennis (Dallas 67), Washington (Charles 82). Subs: Hazard, Hughes, Winchester, Smyth, McCalmont, Brown.
Scorer: Washington 35
Referee: Aleksei Kulbakov (Belarus)
They made a strong start in the Vasil Levski National Stadium, with Liverpool teenager Conor Bradley particularly impressive down the right on his full international debut, and should have been more than one goal ahead by half-time.
Paddy McNair headed straight at Ivan Karadzhov from Shane Ferguson’s cross right in front of goal in the 17th minute, and the Bulgaria keeper produced another smart save to deny Conor Washington seconds later.
Those two players were involved in the opening goal in the 35th minute when McNair whipped over an excellent cross from the right and Charlton striker Washington tucked in the rebound after Karadzhov had kept out a header from Josh Magennis.
There was a long delay before the goal was confirmed as the Belarussian officials checked for offside and the Bulgaria players complained that Dimitar Velkovski was down injured.
However, Northern Ireland failed to build on their advantage with a second-half performance branded ‘abysmal’ by Sky Sports pundit Neil Lennon, and were punished by two goals from Nedelev in the space of 11 minutes.
Bulgaria’s danger man swept a left foot shot beyond Bailey Peacock-Farrell after Ilian Iliev’s cross was deflected into his path. Nedelev then produced an even better finish when Ivaylo Chochev touched the ball back to him on the edge of the box, firing into the top corner.
Conor Washington (right) had earlier given Northern Ireland the lead in the first half
Nedelev’s team-mates mob him in celebration after the first of his two goals on the night
Washington holds the ball up – his goal put Northern Ireland ahead but they couldn’t hold on
Baraclough now has two games left – at home to Lithuania and Italy next month – to try to reclaim third place from Bulgaria and convince the IFA to extend a contract that runs out at the end of this qualifying campaign.
‘We have to learn from nights like this and what we have made difficult for ourselves because that was in our hands,’ said the frustrated Northern Ireland boss who was booked in the dying seconds of the game.
‘We have to take it into next month and finish the campaign in a strong, positive way in the two home games and give our fans something to look forward to beyond the World Cup.’