Bulgaria will face familiar foe Italy in its qualifying group H for the 2016 European football championships, with Croatia likely to represent another major obstacle to Bulgaria’s dreams of qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since Euro 2004.
This will be the third time in the last four qualifying cycles that Bulgaria and Italy have been drawn together – a stretch that also included the European qualifiers for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. In those four matches, Bulgaria drew its home games and lost the away ones, although it was unfortunate not to get a point the last time the two teams met in September 2013.
Croatia, the other team drawn into group H that is headed to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, will be the other favourite for the two spots offering automatic qualification for the Euro 2016 tournament, leaving Norway as Bulgaria’s likeliest direct competitor for the third-place ticket to the play-offs. The other two teams in group H are Azerbaijan and Malta.
Bulgaria last played Norway in friendly matches in 2001 and 1988 – both were in Oslo, with a victory by Norway and a draw, respectively. The last time the two teams were drawn in the same qualifying group was more than 30 years ago, for the 1984 European championships (the teams drew 2-2 in Sofia and Bulgaria won 2-1 in Oslo, enough to finish above Norway, but behind Yugoslavia and Wales.)
Despite an improvement in its last qualifying cycle, Bulgaria still finished fourth in its qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup, the same as Norway (albeit the latter faced a weaker group). Based on their overall results in the past four years, Norway outranked Bulgaria in the Fifa standings published earlier this month – 60th (32nd in Europe) versus 72nd (36th in Europe), respectively.
Uefa’s decision to expand the field of participants in the final tournament to 24 teams gives both Bulgaria and Norway their chance to qualify – Bulgaria had previously qualified for the 1996 and 2004 tournaments, while Norway’s sole appearance was in 2000. In each case, the teams exited the tournaments after the group stage.
Bulgaria will open its qualifying campaign with an away match in Azerbaijan in September, followed by home to Croatia and away in Norway in October. Once again, Bulgaria will face the toughest test at the tail end of the campaign, with trips to Italy and Croatia as two of its last three matches.
Bulgaria’s qualifying slate:
September 9 2014: Azerbaijan vs. Bulgaria
October 10 2014: Bulgaria vs. Croatia
October 13 2014: Norway vs. Bulgaria
November 16 2014: Bulgaria vs. Malta
March 28 2015: Bulgaria vs. Italy
June 12 2015: Malta vs. Bulgaria
September 3 2015: Bulgaria vs. Norway
September 6 2015: Italy vs. Bulgaria
October 10 2015: Croatia vs. Bulgaria
October 13 2015: Bulgaria vs. Azerbaijan
(Photo: juan carlos arellano/sxc.hu)