A bad week for Northern Ireland got worse on Tuesday night as two crisp Todor Nedelev strikes saw Bulgaria come from behind to win 2-1 in Sofia.
Conor Washington's sixth international goal had given Ian Baraclough’s side a half-time lead as they looked to have responded well to Saturday’s controversial 2-0 defeat in Switzerland which effectively ended World Cup qualifying hopes, but it all went wrong after the break.
Bulgarian boss Yasen Petrov shuffled his pack at half-time and got the rewards, although Nedelev took the credit as he beat Bailey Peacock-Farrell in fine fashion twice in 11 minutes to turn things around just after the hour.
It made for more frustration for Baraclough, who had finally built some positive momentum last month but has seen things unravel quickly in the last week, the Qatar dream now definitively dead.
The aim after Saturday's demoralising defeat in Geneva, shaped by the contentious first-half red card for Jamal Lewis, was to try to preserve seeding and look to the future – and to that end Liverpool’s 18-year-old full-back Conor Bradley was handed a first international start as one of four changes.
The early signs were all good – Bradley was one of Northern Ireland’s brightest performers as they quickly pegged Bulgaria back in a dominant first-half performance.
Jordan Thompson was the first to test goalkeeper Ivan Karadzhov as he nicked the ball just inside the Northern Ireland half, driving at goal before shooting from just outside the area.
Baraclough’s men were pressing high, pushing Bulgaria on to the back foot, and creating chances as a result.
Paddy McNair should have done better than head straight at Karadzhov when Shane Ferguson’s cross found him at the far post, and the 32-year-old goalkeeper, making only his second international appearance, then kept out a snapshot from Washington from the resulting corner.
Bradley set up chances for Thompson and Josh Magennis, while weaving into the box and taking on two defenders to win a corner.
The breakthrough came 10 minutes before the break as Washington poked home when the goalkeeper pushed Magennis’ header in his direction, although Northern Ireland had to wait through a long VAR check before celebrating.
But Petrov sent on Ilian Iliev at the break, getting quick rewards as Northern Ireland struggled to deal with a revitalised Bulgaria.
The equaliser came in the 53rd minute as Iliev’s cross was deflected into the path of Nedelev, who got clear of Ferguson to fire a low shot into the net.
Northern Ireland could not stem the tide and, 10 minutes after conceding the first, they found themselves behind.
Nedelev’s second was even better than the first as Ivaylo Chochev laid off a curling cross from Kiril Despedov and Nedelev bent a shot into the top right corner of Peacock-Farrell’s net.
Baraclough sought inspiration from the bench. Stuart Dallas was left out of the starting line-up due to a minor knock, but came on along with Jordan Jones as Bradley and Magennis took a seat.
But the composure and control they had shown in the first half was gone. A significant weakness for Northern Ireland under Baraclough has been their inability to come from behind and they rarely looked like finding an equaliser here.
Thompson sent a free-kick wastefully high and wide with six minutes to go, but Karadzhov was otherwise a spectator as Bulgaria moved above the visitors into third place in Group C – in which Italy and Switzerland are now the only teams still alive.