MX23RW : Saturday, July 31 23:32:20| >> :600:112966:112966:
Mar 31, 2021 at 7.45pm UK at Windsor Park
N. IrelandNorthern Ireland

McNair (33'), Saville (70'), Lafferty (90+2')

Hristov (24'), Antov (45+2'), Iliev (86')

Preview: Northern Ireland vs. Bulgaria - prediction, team news, lineups

Sports Mole previews Wednesday's World Cup Qualifying - Europe clash between Northern Ireland and Bulgaria, including predictions, team news and possible lineups.

After a slow start to World Cup Qualifying Group C for both nations, pointless pair Northern Ireland and Bulgaria meet in Belfast, on the back of lengthy winless streaks.

With the sides already trailing favourites Italy and Switzerland by six points, any continued hopes of a playoff place - even at this early stage - surely hinge on securing an overdue victory on Wednesday.

Match preview

Paddy McNair pictured for Northern Ireland in September 2020© Reuters

Northern Ireland head coach Ian Baraclough saw his team's win-free run continue with a 2-1 friendly defeat to the United States at Windsor Park on Sunday, as the Green and White Army were again unable to capitalise upon some promising situations on home soil.

Coming into Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria, they suffered an increasingly familiar outcome in Belfast, as goals from Borussia Dortmund academy graduates Giovanni Reyna and Christian Pulisic put the Americans in charge before Niall McGinn's superbly-taken late consolation strike.

With Baraclough yet to win inside 90 minutes during his first 10 games in charge - his only success so far being a penalty shoot-out triumph against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the playoffs for this summer's Euros - that streak simply must end this week if his side are to retain faint hopes of reaching Qatar 2022.

While the XI that welcomes the Bulgarians to Belfast will undoubtedly be a very different one to that which started at the weekend - after Baraclough made 10 changes to a side that lost 2-0 to Italy just days before - they will need to bounce back from double disappointment nonetheless.

Already facing an uphill battle in their quest to reach a first World Cup since 1986, the Green and White Army's ever-reliable Leeds United man Stuart Dallas has been among those labelling Wednesday's clash as a "must win" during the build-up.

Bulgaria's Daniel Dimov in action with Italy's Andrea Belotti on March 28, 2021© Reuters

Despite a dogged defensive performance, Bulgaria followed a 3-1 home defeat to Switzerland in their opening fixture of the group with a second consecutive loss on Sunday evening, at the hands of clinical Italy.

Having been three goals behind before even 15 minutes of the campaign had been played at Stadion Vasil Levski versus the Swiss, the Bulgarians' limited chances of progressing from Group C were further diminished by goals from Andrea Belotti - with a controversial penalty - and substitute Manuel Locatelli either side of the break, as the Azzurri left Sofia with all three points.

Considering the Eastern European nation have fallen upon hard times in recent years, having won just two of their last 24 matches - the most recent of which was a 3-0 friendly success versus Gibraltar in November - it came as little surprise that they opened up with losses to the two clear favourites to progress.

Failing to qualify for the final stages since 1998 - four years after famously finishing fourth at USA '94 - Bulgaria's drought on the global stage is likely to continue should they fail to pick up points in this third game of a rapid-fire opening spell of fixtures.

The Lions have already missed out on a place at this summer's Euros, after losing to Hungary in their playoff semi-final last autumn, so confidence remains low in Yasen Petrov's squad. For Northern Ireland, and their under-fire coach, Bulgaria's arrival represents a real opportunity to get points on the board before a long hiatus in the qualification process.

Northern Ireland World Cup Qualifying - Europe form:
  • L

Northern Ireland form (all competitions):
  • L
  • L
  • L
  • D
  • L
  • L

Bulgaria World Cup Qualifying - Europe form:
  • L
  • L

Bulgaria form (all competitions):
  • L
  • W
  • L
  • D
  • L
  • L

Team News

Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough pictured on September 7, 2020© Reuters

Northern Ireland's Jamal Lewis is expected to return from a groin injury that kept him out of the opening game of the international period, having featured from the bench against the USA and will contend for a place on the left flank.

Manager Ian Baraclough previously lost striker Conor Washington to injury and winger Jordan Jones was forced to withdraw just before the squad was announced.

Young Daniel Ballard, currently on loan at Blackpool from Arsenal, impressed despite the defeat on Sunday and speculation persists that the 21-year-old centre-back could keep his place in the back three, alongside Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart.

Strikers Kyle Lafferty and Shayne Lavery - who played under Baraclough for the Under-21s and has eight goals in his last five games for Irish League leaders Linfield - offered energy and application at the weekend, so either could be favoured to one of the previous duo, Josh Magennis and Gavin Whyte.

New Bulgaria boss Yasen Petrov included 10 uncapped players in his first selection as national coach, though regular fixtures such as experienced centre-back Vasil Bozhikov and Brazil-born wing-back Cicinho should once again start in Petrov's favoured 3-5-2 on Wednesday.

Young Bologna defender Valentin Antov started against Italy, having begun on the bench versus Switzerland, and will hope to keep his spot in the back three ahead of CSKA Sofia skipper Petar Zanev.

Fellow Serie A player Andrey Galabinov, of Spezia, should keep his place up front, after being omitted from the squad entirely last Thursday. Meanwhile, Kiril Despodov - scorer against the Swiss - may come back in for Spas Delev in support of the striker.

Northern Ireland possible starting lineup:
Peacock-Farrell; McNair, J. Evans, Cathcart; Dallas, Davis, McCann, C. Evans, Kennedy; Magennis, Lafferty

Bulgaria possible starting lineup:
P. Iliev; Dimov, Antov, Zanev; Cicinho, Malinov, Kostadinov, Chochev, Tsetanov; Despodov, Galabinov

SM words green background

We say: Northern Ireland 1-0 Bulgaria

With both sides desperate for points to break the losing habit and keep them in with a long shot of a trip to the Middle East next year, this could be a tightly-contested affair.

Northern Ireland's chief problem has been in finding quality and composure in the final third, but their combination of vast experience and players hungry to impress on the international stage can just about see off a visiting side whose limitations have been exposed in the opening games of what could be an arduous campaign.

Top tip

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Kyle Lafferty warms up for Northern Ireland on November 7, 2017
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Sunday's key events

· The men's golf reaches its conclusion, with plenty of players still in medal contention. Home favourite Hideki Matsuyama is one shot off Xander Schauffele's lead, while Great Britain's Paul Casey is another shot further back and Tommy Fleetwood is also in the mix (11.30pm-8am)

· Great Britain have already made history in the BMX events in Tokyo, something Charlotte Worthington and Declan Brooks will be looking to add to in the women's (2.10am) and men's (3.10am) freestyle finals

· The final day of swimming action begins with the men's 50m freestyle final. Ben Proud could add to a medal-laden Games in the pool for Team GB so far, although he is up against USA's Caeleb Dressel, who is going for his fourth gold in Tokyo (2.30am)
· From sprint to endurance, Great Britain's second medal hope of the day comes through Daniel Jervis in the men's 1500m freestyle final (2.44am)
· Team GB will again be among the heavy favourites for gold in the last swimming event of the Games - the men's 4x100m medley relay final - having won the mixed event in a world record time on Saturday (3.36am)

· Already guaranteed at least a bronze, Pat McCormack takes part in the men's welterweight semi-final against Ireland's Aidan Walsh with a spot in the gold medal final at stake (4.03am)
· Ben Whittaker is also in the semi-finals of the men's light heavyweight and will be looking to continue Team GB's success in the ring (4.51am)

· There will be a surprise on the top of the men's tennis podium after Novak Djokovic missed out on a medal altogether. Alexander Zverev takes on Karen Khachanov in the second match on Centre Court at the Ariake Tennis Park (7am-2pm)

· Alison Young will be going for gold in the women's laser radial medal race (7.33am)

· Team GB's Max Whitlock will look to defend his 2016 Olympic title in the men's pommel horse final (10.41am)

· The men's high jump final includes GB's Tom Gale, although his chances of a medal look bleak (11.10am)
· So often the blue-riband event of the Olympics, the men's 100m final takes place as the world's fastest bid to be crowned Usain Bolt's successor. Three Brits have made it into the semi-finals (11.15am-11.32am), and the final looks wide open after an underwhelming display by favourite Trayvon Bromell on Saturday (1.50pm)

· Great Britain face India in the men's quarter-final (1pm)

> Today's schedule in full
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Scottish Premiership
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Pre-Season Friendlies
Belgian Pro League
Swiss Super League
Russian Premier League
Ukrainian Premier League
Swedish Allsvenskan
Danish Superliga
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Major League Soccer
Copa Diego Maradona
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