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Bulgaria’s playoff hopes hit by defeat in Armenia

Bulgaria are second in the standings with 13 points from nine matches, seven points behind group winners Italy, who have already qualified for next year’s tournament in Brazil.

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Armenia moved into third place with 12 points from nine games, but Denmark, also on 12 points, had a chance to go second in the group when they hosted Italy later on Friday.

Luboslav Penev’s Bulgaria, alongside Iceland in Group E, also have the lowest points total of any second-placed sides in European qualifying, meaning they risk missing the playoffs even if they finish runners-up.

Bulgaria thought they had taken the lead after half an hour when striker Emil Gargorov put the ball in the net, but it was ruled out for a marginal offside.

Armenia went ahead just before half-time when Aras Ozbilis gave Bulgarian goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov no chance with a perfectly struck free kick, awarded for a clumsy Nikolay Bodurov challenge.

Bodurov received a straight red card but Bulgaria defied his absence and drew level on 61 minutes when their skipper, Ivelin Popov, found the net with another brilliant free kick, making up for two opportunities that had been missed by Gargorov and Stanislav Manolev.

But just two minutes later, Bulgarian midfielder Svetoslav Dyakov joined Bodurov on the sidelines as he was sent off for a second bookable offence.

Yura Movsisyan ran clear of the visitors’ defence to score four minutes from time to secure Armenia’s first home triumph of the campaign.

Penev was furious with the referee, Felix Brych. “We controlled the game, the guys were perfect from the first to the last minute,” the former striker told Bulgarian state TV channel BNT1. “We (tried to do) the impossible to win or at least get a point.

“Obviously, we became ‘uncomfortable’ … and it’s clear we’re not allowed to win. We’ll ask FIFA if we must start with two or three people less.

“We outplayed them with 10 men and with nine men too. But apparently they will not allow us to win no matter how many goals we score.”

Earlier, Bulgaria’s national anthem was booed and whistled by large groups of home fans.

It extended a hostile welcome that had begun when dozen of fans had subjected the Bulgarian team to abuse and hurled objects at them on their arrival at Yerevan airport on Thursday.

In September 2012, Armenia filed a protest with soccer’s ruling body FIFA about “poor officiating” and the treatment they received from the home team during a 1-0 qualifying defeat in Bulgaria.

(Writing by Angel Krasimirov, Editing by Tom Bartlett and Stephen Wood)