Bulgaria and Switzerland begin their bids to make the finals of the 2022 World Cup on Thursday when they do battle in Sofia in their first game of qualification Group C.
The hosts have not qualified for the showpiece event since 1998, while Switzerland are aiming to qualify for the fifth time running having last failed to do so in 2002.
Republic of Ireland’s Dara O’Shea in action with Bulgaria’s Galin Ivanov in the UEFA Nations League on November 18, 2020
Georgi Dermendzhiev’s ill-fated stint in the Bulgaria hotseat came to an abrupt end after their dampening Nations League campaign, with the Lions finishing rock bottom of League A Group 4 and suffering relegation to League C after taking just two points from a possible 18.
Bulgaria managed to hold the Republic of Ireland to two draws last autumn, but successive defeats to Finland and Wales killed any hopes of a respectable finish for Dermendzhiev’s men, and Yasen Petrov is facing an uphill battle in his attempts to turn their fortunes around in a daunting World Cup qualification group.
This week’s hosts are certainly not expected to pip Italy, Switzerland or Northern Ireland to one of the top two spots in Group C, and Bulgaria also missed out on a place at the Euros after losing 3-1 to Hungary in their playoff semi-final, so confidence will not exactly be high in the ranks at the moment.
Bulgaria famously finished fourth in the 1994 World Cup before failing to make it past the group stage four years later, and having won just two of their last 22 matches across all competitions – the most recent of which was a 3-0 friendly win over Gibraltar back in November – Petrov’s men are unlikely to harbour aspirations of another appearance on the world stage any time soon.
Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic pictured on November 11, 2020
In contrast, Switzerland managed to string together a respectable set of results in their Nations League group – holding Germany to two draws, taking a point from their second meeting with Spain and being awarded a 3-0 win in their final group game with Ukraine – although they only just managed to stave off relegation to League B after Ukraine could not fulfil their matchday duties following a coronavirus outbreak.
In fact, that ‘victory’ against Ukraine was their only registered win of 2020, as they also lost to Belgium and Croatia in friendlies by a 2-1 scoreline, so Vladimir Petkovic’s side will certainly welcome less daunting contests in their World Cup qualification group – one which they have every right to push for top spot in – although Italy may have a thing or two to say about that.
Switzerland have already sealed their place in this summer’s Euros and are now bidding to make the World Cup finals for the fifth consecutive time, but they have never advanced past the quarter-finals of the competition and were dumped out in the last 16 in 2014 and 2018.
Petkovic’s men will undoubtedly be eyeing six points from six this month as they prepare to battle Lithuania three days after their trip to Bulgaria, and while they cannot afford to take those games lightly, their record against their midweek opponents makes for positive reading.
Indeed, the visitors have only lost one of their last six battles with Bulgaria, and the most recent meeting between the two nations ended in a 3-1 win for the Red Crosses during qualification for Euro 2012, where a 19-year-old Xherdan Shaqiri bagged a hat-trick for his country.
Bulgaria form (all competitions):
Switzerland form (all competitions):
Switzerland players celebrate scoring against Belgium on November 11, 2020
Petrov has included a total of 10 uncapped players for March’s qualification matches, as experienced players such as Todor Nedelev, Anton Nedyalkov and Nikolay Mihaylov are nowhere to be seen.
Bologna starlet Valentin Antov could be handed a start in defence alongside captain Petar Zanev – a man 15 years his senior – while Brazilian-born defender Cicinho should once again start at left-back.
Antov’s fellow Serie A representative Andrey Galabinov will hope to lead the line for the hosts, while in-form Ludogorets attacker Kiril Despodov – on loan from Cagliari – is expected to provide support from the flanks.
Switzerland’s Shaqiri has fond memories of playing Bulgaria and should earn a start this week despite his troubles at Liverpool, while Remo Freuler and Denis Zakaria will likely battle it out for the chance to partner captain Granit Xhaka in the middle.
Zakaria is one of four Borussia Monchengladbach representatives in the Swiss squad, and his teammates Yann Sommer and Nico Elvedi are both in line to feature as well, but Breel Embolo’s spot up top is not entirely safe given the prolific club form of Mario Gavranovic.
Fabian Schar is a notable absentee from the squad after his season-ending injury, so Ricardo Rodriguez and Manuel Akanji are likely to complete the back three alongside Elvedi.
Bulgaria possible starting lineup:
P. Iliev; Popov, Antov, Zanev, Cicinho; Malinov, Kostadinov; Delev, D. Iliev, Despodov; Galabinov
Switzerland possible starting lineup:
Sommer; Elvedi, Akanji, Rodriguez; Mbabu, Xhaka, Freuler, Zuber; Shaqiri; Seferovic, Gavranovic
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We say: Bulgaria 0-2 Switzerland
Switzerland held their own against Europe’s best during their Nations League campaign, so Petkovic can be forgiven for expecting his side to sweep aside their opponents on matchday one. The hosts will relish the opportunity to learn from their new manager, but it would take a miracle for Petrov to inspire his side to victory here, so a comfortable away win is the only outcome that we can predict.