Football/Soccer

Baraclough cautiously optimistic as Northern Ireland host Bulgaria

World Cup 2022 European qualifying Group C: Northern Ireland v Bulgaria (Windsor Park, 7.45pm)

If Northern Ireland require a warning about the dangers of this game then they needn't look far, in either time or distance.

Based on recent form, the Republic of Ireland's home loss to Luxembourg on Saturday night was a surprise rather than a shock. Bulgaria are even closer in the world rankings (68th) to their hosts (45th) than Luxembourg were.

Expecting a victory would be foolish, especially when there's little to separate the sides.

The recent records of these two teams are remarkably similar, each with only one victory since the beginning of 2020, each with only two draws.

Bulgaria's solitary win was almost a 'gimme', 3-0 at home to Gibraltar, and the only other games in which they avoided defeat were both against…the Republic of Ireland.

Yet they've still conceded fewer over that recent timeframe than NI, while both struggle to score.

Bulgaria conceded early goals in both their qualifier matches so far – three of them against the Swiss inside 13 minutes in a 3-1 defeat, the opener to Italy in the 14th – but certainly made life difficult for the group favourites after that, before going down 2-0 to a late penalty.

Northern Ireland lost by the same scoreline in Italy, and will take confidence from their second half display there, but they know that the scoreboard is all that matters tonight.

Home skipper Steven Davis will be in the spotlight again, set to become the most-capped UK player ever, moving onto 126 appearances, above former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

However, he'll feel little joy unless he leads his team to victory.

A draw will feel like a defeat; a defeat will seem a disaster. Neither would be true, of course, but it would be incredibly difficult to mount a challenge for second spot without a home win over the fourth-ranked team in the group.

In this time of crowd-less contests it's harder to make home advantage count - but it must be done.

To that end boss Ian Baraclough has brought in former Aston Villa and Celtic forward Tommy Johnson as a striking coach, explaining: "He takes them off, meets with them individually, and as a group as well, so that's probably one new thing in this camp, and the more that they can glean from the people who have been there and done it the better."

Under new boss Yasen Petrov, Bulgaria are far from the heady days of Hristo Stoichkov and Krasimir Balakov and reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 1994, a long way even from the likes of Stiliyan Petrov and Dimitar Berbatov.

With a mostly home-based squad they're largely an unknown quantity. Their skipper Georgi Kostadinov does play for Arsenal, but it's Russian side Arsenal Tula.

Baraclough, as ever, is positive, but says his team will be sensible: "We haven't given ourselves as good a chance to win games simply because we haven't got that first goal.

"It's very easy to expect to just go and throw everything at the opposition and expect to break them down, but we've got to worry about the other end as well…

"So as much as we want to go and attack and demand the ball and dominate possession, we have to be careful of the sucker punch and that's something we've spoken about."

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Football/Soccer