The World Cup finals in Qatar kick-off in November 2022, but for Northern Ireland the tournament seems light years away now.
ulgaria at Windsor Park was a must-win match for Ian Baraclough and his players. Bottom line, they didn’t get the job done.
The visitors were there for the taking in this Group C qualifier and while it’s true the home side dominated for long periods, just like in the Euro play-off final against an average Slovakian outfit, ultimately Northern Ireland weren’t good enough to put Bulgaria away.
This scoreless draw will sting for Baraclough’s men and will hurt until September when Group C resumes.
The start of this campaign was supposed to ease the pain of failing to reach the Euro finals in summer after the crushing defeat to Slovakia, but the opening two matches have just served to deepen wounds from that nightmare in November.
While the goals conceded in the 2-0 loss to Italy last week were avoidable, few expected the Northern Ireland side to leave Parma with anything bar the taste of well cooked pasta in their mouths.
What the fans felt was a sure thing was victory over Bulgaria. Over the past three qualifying campaigns these types of nations have been dealt with at Windsor. Not last night.
Group leaders Italy have nine points from three games, Switzerland have six from two and Northern Ireland have one in the bank.
In terms of qualification, Baraclough’s side are in a hole bigger than the Grand Canyon and will need to find inspiration in their remaining six qualifiers home and away against Lithuania and the Swiss, in Bulgaria and in Belfast versus the Italians.
The outcome tonight felt big on statistics and emotion.
On the facts and stats, Baraclough is still awaiting his first victory in 90 minutes as Northern Ireland manager. He did, of course, lead the team to glory on penalties in October last year in the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final away to Bosnia & Herzegovina, but the normal time gorilla remains on his back.
The same goes for the players because entering the fixture with Bulgaria they hadn’t won over 90 since October 2019 when they overcame Czech Republic 3-2 in a Prague friendly when Michael O’Neill was in charge.
You have to go back to September of that year for the last Windsor Park victory versus Luxembourg who, of course, beat the Republic of Ireland in Dublin in the World Cup at the weekend.
On the upside they did secure a first clean sheet since the 0-0 draw with the Netherlands in front of a packed house in the Euro qualifiers in November 2019.
Emotionally while not as tough to take as the play-off final loss, this was still a bitter blow. Bulgaria were poor with little to offer. No wonder the manager and players wore grim faces as they trudged off to the dressing room. The frustration and flat feeling was evident. Northern Ireland fans watching on TV at home would have been angry and deflated.
After a shadow side started against USA in Sunday’s friendlies, Baraclough turned to the big hitters for a monumentally important qualifier.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell returned in goal after being criticised for Italy’s second goal in the opening Group C match. Ahead of the Burnley ace was a three man defence of Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart and Daniel Ballard with Stuart Dallas and Jamal Lewis, who was injured for the trip to Parma, operating as wing backs.
With Ballard selected that allowed Paddy McNair to move into midfield alongside skipper Davis and George Saville, getting the nod over Ali McCann, with Gavin Whyte playing behind Josh Magennis.
Davis looked focus leading the side out. He will have been proud as punch too making his 126th international appearance and becoming British football’s most capped footballer.
The list of giants below him sums up what is a glorious achievement. Check out this magnificent seven who are next in line to the Northern Ireland legend: Peter Shilton (125), Wayne Rooney (120), Pat Jennings (119), David Beckham (115), Steven Gerrard (114), Aaron Hughes (112) and England’s World Cup winning skipper Bobby Moore (108).
Bulgaria had suffered defeats to group favourites Italy and Switzerland in their opening fixtures and needed a win in Belfast to keep alive any remote hopes of qualification yet they were content to play for a draw.
Scrappy early on Davis struck wide from outside the box and the Bulgarian goalkeeper Daniel Naumov saved comfortably from a Magennis header following a long throw from Dallas.
Those two combined again to put the ball in the net in the 17th minute with the Leeds ace delivering a lovely cross for Magennis to turn in only for the referee’s assistant to put his flag up against Dallas for a foul on Momchil Tsventanov as they tussled for a pass from Evans.
Magennis and Dallas were causing problems. On 22 it was the Hull City forward who was the supplier with a well flighted cross from the left to the back post. Dallas connected and was unfortunate to see his header hit the bar before the visitors cleared. Shortly after Magennis headed over from McNair’s whipped free-kick.
Northern Ireland were controlling the contest, but there was no end product. The only concern at the other end in the first period came just after the half hour mark when Peacock-Farrell failed to collect a Bulgarian free-kick awarded after McNair had been cautioned for a high boot. The young goalkeeper was relieved that Bulgaria failed to take advantage.
In the second period Northern Ireland pushed forward at will with Whyte forcing Naumov into an acrobat save in the opening exchanges after Cathcart’s header across the area.
With Lewis lively on the left they continued to move into promising positions on the flanks without that final killer ball and won set pieces like they were going out of fashion but couldn’t make them count.
Substitute Niall McGinn, fresh from his wonder goal against USA, fired wide as the home side desperately searched for the deadlock breaking moment. Hehad another effort deflected off target following clever approach play from Lewis and Dallas.
The clinical edge was lacking. Bulgaria substitute Dimitar Iliev almost provided it in injury time with a header brilliantly saved by Peacock-Farrell. Had that gone in it would have made a desperately disappointing evening even worse.
A 0-0 draw here wasn’t going to cut it. Victory was required. Baraclough and his team knew that better than anyone. World Cup hopes are now slim and none.