Northern Ireland had to settle for a disappointing scoreless draw despite dominating possession against a toothless Bulgaria at Windsor Park.
Stuart Dallas hit the crossbar with a first-half header for the hosts while Gavin Whyte and Niall McGinn went close after the break.
The visitors almost stole a win at the end but Bailey Peacock-Farrell produced a superb save from Dimitar Iliev.
It leaves Northern Ireland with one point from two World Cup qualifiers.
They are still looking for a first win during 90 minutes in 11 matches under Ian Baraclough.
Their next Group C game is away to Lithuania in September.
With group leaders Italy making it three wins from three by defeating Lithuania, Northern Ireland are third in the table behind Switzerland in second.
After losing 2-0 to Italy in their opening qualifier last week, NI’s hopes of qualification for a first World Cup finals since 1986 now look bleak with home and away matches to Switzerland still to be played after they resume their campaign in September.
What was a damaging draw could have been a crushing defeat if Peacock-Farrell had not dived full-stretch to turn an Iliev header from an injury-time corner round the post.
Missed early chances prove costly for NI
After a scrappy start to the match, Northern Ireland began to impose themselves on the game, with captain Steven Davis, winning his 126th cap which surpassed Peter Shilton’s British record, doing his best to dictate the tempo from his deep-lying midfield role.
He fired an early volley wide, while Josh Magennis soon made the Bulgarian defence aware of his willingness to run and harry, while also proving a threat in front of goal when he forced a save from Daniel Naumov with a header from a long throw-in.
The Hull City man, playing in a front two with club team-mate Gavin Whyte, dug out an excellent left-wing cross that found Dallas at the back post and, despite leaning backwards, he got enough power on his header to beat Naumov but it cannoned back off the crossbar.
Magennis flashed another header just over the crossbar but, while he was looking lively, strike partner Whyte was too often too far away from him and struggled to make an impact in the opening half.
That changed briefly just after the restart when he got on the end of a Craig Cathcart knock-down only to hit his volley into the ground, robbing it of the power needed to beat the visiting goalkeeper.
The former Crusaders winger was soon brought off for Niall McGinn who, despite playing in an unfamiliar centre-forward role, also came close to breaking the deadlock when he fired just wide after a good move.
NI run out of ideas as right-wing threat fades
Having been restored to the midfield berth in which he has shone for Northern Ireland in recent years, Paddy McNair suffered an early clash of heads and had a relatively quiet first-half apart from a few good set-piece deliveries.
The Middlesbrough man made more of an impact after the break, however, and in tandem with Dallas, began to make inroads behind the Bulgarian defence down the home side’s right flank.
McNair produced a number of low crosses which were well cleared by the visitors, with one cut-back resulting in a Daniel Ballard shot over the crossbar when he may have been better advised to leave the ball for the inrushing Whyte.
A series of short-corner routines looked like they had been well rehearsed on the training ground, but despite looking promising the most they amounted to was a Jonny Evans header that looped over the crossbar.
As the clock ticked on, Northern Ireland ran out of ideas and a double substitution that saw Matty Kennedy and Michael Smith come on for Saville and Ballard did nothing to improve the creativity, with Kyle Lafferty’s introduction later on also having little effect.
It looked like Baraclough switched to a 4-4-2 formation but his side’s threat diminished and in the end they relied on a vital save from Peacock-Farrell to prevent what would have been a crushing defeat.
Long wait to revive qualification bid
Such is the dynamic of the Covid-19 international calendar, Northern Ireland now must wait over five months for a trip to Lithuania before they can revive a World Cup qualifying campaign that is already faltering after just two matches.
Few would have expected Baraclough’s side to have beaten an in-form Italy last week, but Wednesday night’s visit of Bulgaria was a huge opportunity to not only kick-start their qualification bid, but to get a first win during 90 minutes for Baraclough that he has now gone 11 matches without.
It was apparent early on that Bulgaria offered almost no attacking threat whatsoever but Northern Ireland could not make their dominant possession pay as the match limped towards a scoreless draw.
Scoring goals has been an age-old problem for Northern Ireland and Baraclough has clearly tried to address that by changing the system to a 3-5-2, but it does not look as if Magennis and Whyte are the ideal combination up front to solve the goalscoring conundrum.
Dion Charles is in goalscoring form for Accrington in League One and could be a potential solution, but after including him in his squad for the first time, Baraclough clearly felt he is not quite ready for qualification matches.
- 4BallardSubstituted forSmithat 74′minutes
- 17McNairBooked at 33mins
- 6SavilleBooked at 70minsSubstituted forKennedyat 74′minutes
- 21MagennisSubstituted forLaffertyat 82′minutesBooked at 90mins
- 18WhyteSubstituted forMcGinnat 64′minutes
- 2HristovBooked at 24mins
- 4AntovBooked at 45mins
- 17YomovSubstituted forKaragarenat 73′minutes
- 8VutovSubstituted forIlievat 45′minutes
- 7KostadinovSubstituted forVitanovat 44′minutes
- 21TsvetanovSubstituted forZanevat 73′minutes
- 9GalabinovSubstituted forIlievat 73′minutesBooked at 86mins
Match ends, Northern Ireland 0, Bulgaria 0.
Second Half ends, Northern Ireland 0, Bulgaria 0.
Attempt missed. Atanas Iliev (Bulgaria) header from the centre of the box is just a bit too high. Assisted by Petar Zanev.
Kyle Lafferty (Northern Ireland) is shown the yellow card.
Corner, Bulgaria. Conceded by Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Attempt saved. Dimitar Iliev (Bulgaria) header from the centre of the box is saved in the bottom right corner. Assisted by Kiril Despodov with a cross.
Corner, Bulgaria. Conceded by Craig Cathcart.
Corner, Northern Ireland. Conceded by Atanas Iliev.
Atanas Iliev (Bulgaria) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Craig Cathcart (Northern Ireland) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by Atanas Iliev (Bulgaria).
Attempt blocked. Stuart Dallas (Northern Ireland) right footed shot from outside the box is blocked.
Corner, Northern Ireland. Conceded by Andrea Hristov.
Attempt blocked. Niall McGinn (Northern Ireland) left footed shot from the centre of the box is blocked. Assisted by Stuart Dallas.
Attempt missed. Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland) header from the centre of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Patrick McNair with a cross following a corner.
Substitution, Northern Ireland. Kyle Lafferty replaces Josh Magennis.
Corner, Northern Ireland. Conceded by Andrea Hristov.
Foul by Steven Davis (Northern Ireland).
Andrea Hristov (Bulgaria) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Attempt blocked. Jamal Lewis (Northern Ireland) right footed shot from outside the box is blocked. Assisted by Steven Davis.