Bulgaria won't be unfamiliar opposition to many in Stephen Kenny's Republic of Ireland squad.

Indeed, the Boys in Green faced the very same side as recently as last September, towards the end of Mick McCarthy's time in charge.

But while that 3-1 friendly win was part of Ireland's preparation for Euro 2020 qualification fixtures later that autumn, Thursday's fixture against the Bulgarians will have UEFA Nations League points riding on it.

So, when they meet again in Sofia on Thursday, what can we expect from Bulgaria 360 days on from the 2019 game?

Recent form

Needless to say, recent Bulgaria generations are a far cry from the vintage of the '90s which contained illustrious names like Hristo Stoichkov, Emil Kostadinov and Krasimir Balakov as well as cult heroes such as the late Trifon Ivanov and Yordan Lechkov, whose famously balding head knocked Germany out of USA 94 en route to a semi-final appearance.

While FIFA's rankings are not always the best arbiter of a team's position vis-a-vis the rest of the world, these days they are ranked 59th, a full 25 places below Ireland. If one takes just the teams affiliated with UEFA, the Boys In Green are the 20th best in Europe per the FIFA rankings, while Bulgaria languish way back in 32nd.

They came into last September's match against Ireland off the back of a 4-0 loss to England and have followed the subsequent loss in Dublin with just one win and a draw from their next five games, including a calamitous 6-0 humiliation to the English in Sofia in a game marred by racist chants from the stands.

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Goals have also been an issue of late with just two scored (including a penalty against Ireland) in their last seven games.

Their presence in League B in the last Nations League followed a second-placed finish behind Norway in Group 3 of League C, finishing above Cyprus and Slovenia back in the autumn of 2018.

But their form had tailed off by the end, having won their opening three games of the group before failing to win the remaining three.

It was enough to help Bulgaria into the back door play-offs for Euro 2020, with Hungary standing in their way in the semi-final next month before a decider against either Iceland or Romania, should they progress. 


A difficult 2019 saw national team legend Krasimir Balakov step aside after just five months and six games in charge.

His short tenure, which also included the aforementioned defeat in Dublin, ended with a win percentage of zero with just one draw and five defeats, only one of which came in a friendly.

In his place comes Georgi Dermendzhiev who previously had success with domestic club side Ludogorets, reaching the Champions League group stages on two occasions.

He has presided over one win in three since taking charge of Bulgaria last October. 

In their last fixture, a 1-0 friendly loss at home to Belarus in February, Dermendzhiev lined his team up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, not too dissimilar to the formations employed by Balakov in matches with the exceptions of the heavy defeats to England when back fives were used.

But the main pattern from 2019 and early 2020 was a back four with one striker leading the line in either a 4-2-3-1 or  4-1-4-1. Dermendzhiev did play Marcelinho and Ivelin Popov up front together for a 1-0 friendly defeat to Paraguay in November however.

Otherwise, their last competitive outing, which was a 1-0 home win over Czech Republic in their last European qualifying group match, saw them start with Georgi Gheorgev in goal, a back four of Strahil Popov, Georgi Terziev, Vasil Bozhikov, Petar Zanev, while Georgi Kostadinov and Kristiyan Malinov were paired at the base of the midfield. Ivelin Popov played in advanced midfield, flanked by Brazilian-born Wanderson on the left and Kiril Despodov on the right. Brazil-born Marcelinho led the line but at 36 is no longer in the squad ten months on.

Ivelin Popov, who scored Bulgaria's penalty against Ireland, has also retired from international football, ending a 90-cap spell with his country.

Georgi Dermendzhiev looks on during the Euro 2020 qualifier against Czech Republic last November

The vast majority of the squad to face Ireland and Wales this month are home-based, many plying their trades at the likes of CSKA Sofia, Ludogorets and Levski Sofia among others.

There is a notable absence of players at clubs in Europe's big five leagues or major clubs in general, a stark contrast to the days when they could call upon the successors to the 1990 generation like Dimitar Berbatov, Stiliyan Petrov and Martin Petrov.

It is also a noticeably inexperienced squad in terms of the number of caps with only two players - Petar Zanev and goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov, formerly on the books at Liverpool - having made more than 30 international appearances.

Bozhikov, who at 32 is among their more experienced defenders, misses out on Thursday's match after his Slovakian club Slovan Bratislava prevented him from joining up with the Bulgaria squad due to quarantine rules that would have required him to miss two weeks of action upon his return from international duty.

Head to head

Bulgaria have the distinction of being the first international team to take on Republic of Ireland - officially as the Irish Free State - back in 1924 on French soil during that year's Olympics.

On that occasion, the Irish side prevailed 1-0 thanks to a goal by Paddy Duncan.

In the ten matches since then, the record has been evenly balanced with three more wins for the Boys in Green, including last September's meeting, four draws and three defeats.

Follow Bulgaria v Republic of Ireland this Thursday via our live blog on RTÉ.ie and the RTÉ News app or listen to live commentary on RTÉ 2FM's Game On.