Bulgaria’s national football team held out against a late rally from Malta to win 2-1 in their latest World Cup qualifier on September 10, but must win its remaining two games and hope that results elsewhere go its way if it is to book a place in the play-off round.
The 1-0 loss against Italy in Palermo on September 6, when a string of exceptional saves from Gianluigi Buffon repeatedly denied Bulgaria any chance of stealing even a point, may yet prove to be decisive in Bulgaria’s quest to secure World Cup qualification after missing the last three tournaments.
A point ahead of Denmark in the Uefa qualifying group B standings, Bulgaria will secure second-place if it wins its remaining two games – against Armenia away on October 11 and the Czech Republic at home on October 15.
Denmark plays Italy, who have already won the group, and last-place Malta, both at home. Should the Danes drop any points against Italy, Bulgaria’s path to a second-place would be made even easier – but anything other than the full six points would almost certainly leave Bulgaria out of the play-off picture.
Under Uefa’s rules, the winners of the nine qualifying groups in Europe will automatically secure a place at the World Cup (Italy and the Netherlands did so on September 10); eight of the nine runner-up teams will play two-legged play-offs in November to decide the other four places, with the worst second-place team eliminated from contention.
However, to account for the fact that one of the nine qualifying groups only features five teams (as opposed to six in the other eight), for the purposes of deciding which runner-up team will miss out on the play-offs, the matches against the last-placed team in the groups with six countries are discarded.
This means that in the provisional table of teams currently placed second in their groups, Bulgaria is last with only seven points (as the six points against Malta are discounted), four points behind a group of four teams that have 11 each.
Given that the standings may yet change with two games to play (and not all teams currently ranked second in their groups will remain so on October 15), Bulgaria may yet sneak into the play-offs if certain other matches go its way – most likely in group D, won by the Netherlands, where Hungary, Turkey and Romania are locked into a tight fight for the runner-up spot.