Manchester City defender Richard Dunne kept the Republic of Ireland on target for the 2010 World Cup after his first half goal earned Giovanni Trapattoni’s side a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria here on Saturday.
In a hardfought encounter Dunne headed home in the 24th minute only for Dimitar Telkiyski to level five minutes later.
While outright victory would have lifted Ireland to the top of Group Eight this stalemate has still left them in pole position to claim at least second spot.
The result maintained Ireland’s eight point cushion over third-placed Bulgaria, who still have to go to Cyprus and Italy, who are one point clear of Ireland at the top with a game in hand.
Ireland arrived at the Vasil Levski Stadium having yet to lose a competitive game under Trapattoni and for 25 minutes, the 70-year-old Italian must have been happy as his side not only held their own at a venue where they had never previously tasted victory, but took the game to their hosts.
Despite the inclusion of big names Dimitar Berbatov, Martin Petrov and Valeri Bojinov, who all missed the 1-1 draw in Dublin through injury, it was the visitors who made the early running.
Winger Stephen Hunt forced the game’s first save with only six minutes gone when he met Damien Duff’s cross with a downward header at the far post, and Bulgaria keeper Dimitar Ivankov was called upon again seconds later when Caleb Folan sent in a firm shot from the edge of the box.
Skipper Robbie Keane was unable to hit the target after spinning smartly to connect with Dunne’s header down from an 11th-minute Duff corner and, as Folan caused panic in the heart of the Bulgaria defence, the signs were good for the Irish.
The Hull striker’s physical presence made life intensely difficult for central defenders Igor Tomasic and Ilian Stoyanov, who at times resorted to less than legal methods in an attempt to stop him.
However, there was nothing they could do to prevent the visitors from taking the lead with 24 minutes gone after Hunt had been tripped by Stanislav Angelov wide on the left.
The winger dusted himself down before curling in a free-kick that Dunne met unopposed and gleefully headed into the net.
Martin Petrov might have levelled within a minute but lifted his shot from a tight angle over Shay Given’s crossbar, but the battle had been joined and Ireland were forced to weather a storm from then until the break.
The Bulgarians levelled within five minutes of Dunne’s opener when Telkiyski capitalised on a misunderstanding between Kevin Kilbane and Sean St Ledger to run on to Ilian Tomasic’s long ball and beat the advancing Given comfortably.
And, with Angelov pulling the strings from central midfield and Berbatov prowling menacingly from deep, the alarm bells were ringing.
Dunne had to head a Bojinov shot away and then intercept Angelov’s cross just before his Manchester City team-mate could pounce with Bulgaria now in full swing.
Given got his body firmly behind a long-range strike from Radostin Kishishev in injury-time and the whistle came as a welcome relief for Ireland and their fans.
It was no surprise when the Bulgarians resumed where they had left off and John O’Shea, playing at right-back to accommodate St Ledger in the middle, endured a challenging start to the second half as Martin Petrov got the bit between his teeth.
Ireland defended manfully in what was a pulsating second half, and the visitor had a let off when Berbatov miscued with only given to beat in the 57th minute.
Irish substitute Aiden McGeady then almost snatched victory at the death with a right-foot shot that whistled inches wide.
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