Northern Ireland travel to Bulgaria (Match betting – Bulgaria 2/1, draw 19/10, Northern Ireland 17/10) on Tuesday evening knowing they must win to give themselves a vague hope of reaching the World Cup play offs.

Saturday’s defeat at Switzerland was a devastating blow to their chances and it seemed inevitable once Norwich left-back Jamal Lewis picked up a red card in the first half.

Steven Zuber and Christian Fassnacht inflicted the damage, meaning they trial Switzerland by six points in Group C.

Italy are currently top of the standings having picked up 14 points from six games – failing to lose any of their matches.

Switzerland lie just three points behind with a game in hand and they might even be targeting top spot when they visit the Azzurri next month.

That makes Northern Ireland’s task even more difficult. Even if they defeat Bulgaria on Tuesday night, they have to hope that Lithuania can do them a favour and at least prevent Switzerland (Match betting – Lithuania 14/1, draw 11/2, Switzerland 2/9) from winning.

A lack of goals from Ian Baraclough’s side has stopped them from making progress during this qualification period.

In five games, they have mustered just four goals and they all came in the same game when they battered Lithuania 4-1 in September.

Goalless home draws against Switzerland and Bulgaria haven’t helped and their toughest task yet comes on the final matchday when they host Italy, who have been beaten once in 37 matches.

Ultimately, qualifying for the play offs seems a real forlorn hope for the Ulstermen and they will probably have to dedicate themselves towards securing a trip to Germany in Euro 2024.

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