Sofia’s Vasil Levski Stadium will take centre stage on Friday as Bulgaria battle Italy in their opening World Cup 2014 Group B qualifier.
The Azzurri will look to pick up where they left off from this summer’s European Championships, where, barring a rather disastrous drubbing by Spain in the final, Cesare Prandelli’s men wowed the continent with their silky football and, of course, the performances of a certain Mario Balotelli.
They face a Bulgarian side in clear decline: once a strong qualification candidate for both the World Cup and European Championships, they are now a far cry from the side which could boast Borislav Mikhailov, Trifon Ivanov, Hristo Stoichkov and Yordan Letchkov, the man who sent Germany packing from the 1994 World Cup with a splendid diving header.
Such has been the dip in their fortunes since that impressive run to the last four in the USA 18 years ago that the Lions were reduced to mere lambs on the road to Poland and Ukraine, coming last in England’s group with a paltry five points.
There is presumably little chance that Bulgaria will keep the match scoreless, then, as it was last time they faced Italy here back in 2008. That Italy side had been toothless and uninspired, and would go on to embarrass itself at the 2010 World Cup.
Such has been the dip in Bulgaria’s fortunes since that impressive run to the last four in the USA 18 years ago that the Lions were reduced to mere lambs on the road to Poland and Ukraine, coming last in England’s group with a paltry five points.
This Azzurri outfit, on the other hand, has the talent and know-how to turn matches like this into a routine triumph, meaning Italy are strong favourites to win at a price of 3/5.
Yet punters searching for a more adventurous bet could do worse than back a draw at 12/5, considering Italy’s traditional September jitters. Italy lost to France a few weeks after winning the World Cup in 2006 and were also beaten on the road by Wales back in 2002 at the Millennium Stadium.
Though a Bulgarian win, which is rated as a 5/1 chance, seems rather unlikely here, the price on offer for the Italians is not exactly the most appealing.
With that in mind, it would be smarter to bet on the home side being boosted by its passionate crowd into snatching an early lead, before crumbling in the face of Italian superiority.
After all, Prandelli’s men fell behind against Estonia in Tallinn during another September game in which they showed some fragility, this time in 2010, before eventually winning 2-1.
A repeat result on Friday offers an enticing long shot at 31/4, especially with winnings of £175 on offer for anyone correctly backing this scoreline with their free £20 bet upon registering with bwin.
However, I’ll be taking the tempting price of evens for Italy to win a game featuring under 3.5 goals. All of the Azzurri’s five games on the road during their Euro 2012 qualification campaign contained less than four goals and I see no reason for that to change in Sofia.
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