Scorers: Bulgaria U21 - G Milanov (33), Kolev (90); Scotland U21 - Rhodes (69, 90)
Bookings: Bulgaria U21 - Tsvetkov; Scotland U21 - Wotherspoon
The Scots are now top of Group 10 after maintaining their unbeaten record in the European Under-21 Championship qualifiers, but it was almost so much better after Rhodes, the prolific Huddersfield Town striker, scored in the last minute to put the visitors 2-1 ahead.
Scotland lost a first half goal to Georgi Milanov and blew a glorious chance to take the lead before that when Johnny Russell missed an open goal. However, they produced a strong second half performance and Rhodes’ brace – to claim his 48th goal of an amazing season – looked like it would be enough until the home side grabbed that injury-time leveller through Rosen Kolev.
Stark’s side now have two games left in the group against Luxembourg and Austria and have a great chance of advancing to the play-offs, either as Group winner or as one of the best runners-up for the finals in Israel next year.
The young Scots almost found themselves a goal down inside seven minutes and it took a fine stop from Hearts goalkeeper Mark Ridgers to keep the scores level. Stanislav Kostov played a one-two and spun off Paul Hanlon but Ridgers rushed out to block.
That encouraged the Bulgarians and Momchil Tsvetanov cut inside and drilled a left foot effort that Ridgers just about managed to turn behind for a corner.
Scotland created a good opportunity in the 14th minute when Johnny Russell outmuscled Aleksander Tsvetkov in the penalty box and his prodded shot was thwarted by a fine reaction stop from the Bulgarian goalkeeper Stefano Kunchev. But the Dundee United winger – called up by Craig Levein for the full squad’s game in the USA – missed a glorious chance a minute later.
Liam Kelly’s intelligent pass over the top of the Bulgarian defence saw keeper Kunchev race out of his box to stop Russell from reaching it, but he misjudged it and the ball bounced over his head. That left Russell in the clear with an open goal in front of him, albeit from a narrow angle. He seemed to take an eternity to deliver his shot and defender Georgi Pashov had time to clear Russell’s scuffed effort off the goal line.
Gary Mackay-Steven’s work rate was illustrated when he sprinted back into his own box to perform an excellent block tackle on Stanislav Kostov after the Bulgarians carved Scotland open with a fast-paced move.
Scotland didn’t pay attention to the warning though and went behind in the 33rd minute. Georgi Milanov played a one-two with Tsvetanov outside the box before the Litex Lovech midfielder struck a low shot that crept into Ridgers’ goal, with the Tynecastle keeper possibly unsighted.
Scotland controlled proceedings at the start of the second half but only had a Ross Perry off-target header and a deflected Liam Kelly shot to show for their efforts. They had a claim for a penalty turned down on the hour mark when David Wotherspoon tried to meet Mackay-Steven’s cross, but seemed to be tugged back by Georgi Terziev in the box. The Hibs midfielder was the cautioned for protesting that he was impeded.
Scotland deserved an equaliser and it came in the 69th minute. A short corner was played to Kelly and his chipped cross was nodded in by Rhodes, who had found space inside the box.
Rhodes believed he had won the game for Scotland with a typical predator’s finish on 90 minutes. Substitute Stuart Armstrong cut the ball back for the striker to turn and volley into the net for a dramatic goal.
However, Bulgaria’s Kolev scrambled the ball into the net with the very last kick of the game to sicken the young Scots.
Bulgaria U21: Kunchev, Pashov, Kolev, Terziev, Ilia Milanov (Granchov 59), Tsvetkov, Dimov (Kirilov 74), Georgi Milanov, Baldzhiyski, Kostov (Georgi Kostadinov 65), Tsvetanov. Subs: Ivaylo Vasilev, Popov, Valchanov, Ivelin Vasilev.
Scotland U21: Ridgers, Jack (Toshney 81), Perry, Wilson, Hanlon, Wotherspoon (Armstrong 67), Kelly, Allan, Mackay-Steven, Russell (Palmer 83), Rhodes. Subs: Adam, Cairney, McLean, O’Halloran.