Bulgaria's slim hopes of clinching a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ play-off place were ended as Cyprus ran out comfortable winners in their Group 8 qualifier in Larnaca. Constantinos Charalambides' early brace put the hosts in the ascendancy and, although Dimitar Berbatov halved the deficit on the stroke of half-time, second-half goals from Michalis Constantinou and Stathis Aloneftis sealed the win.
The result meant Bulgaria were unable to catch second-placed Republic of Ireland and moved fourth-placed Cyprus to within two points of their third-spotted opponents with one round of matches remaining on Wednesday. Cyprus take on world champions Italy in Parma while Bulgaria host Georgia in Sofia.
It could all have been different had the visitors converted one of two early opportunities. Manchester United striker Berbatov had the first chance of the game after three minutes, but he could not keep the ball down when put through and Sofronis Avgoustis made a comfortable block.
Martin Petrov skipped down the left four minutes later and crossed for Blagoy Georgiev, whose shot from inside the area cannoned off the bar and to safety.
The deadlock was broken at the other end in the 11th minute. A quick free-kick released Konstantinos Makrides, who burst down the left and pulled the ball back for an unmarked Charalambides to strike home from close range. The Apoel midfielder then turned provider for Aloneftis, but his shot was blocked by team-mate Constantinou.
The Cypriots did double their advantage in the 20th minute, however. Bulgaria full-back Ivan Ivanov lost his footing when the ball was played into him, allowing Charalambides to collect, race through on goal and coolly beat the on-rushing Dimitar Ivankov.
Cyprus could have forged further ahead just after the half-hour, but Aloneftis's strike was well blocked by Ivankov, who then also denied Andreas Avraam from the rebound with his legs.
Berbatov gave Bulgaria hope heading into the interval by pulling one back, placing the ball into the corner of Avgoustis's net with his instep from just inside the area, following Georgiev's run down the right. Georgiev could have levelled eight minutes after the interval as Bulgaria enjoyed a good spell, skipping past Paraskevas Christou from Berbatov's pass, but then firing his shot against the post.
But from then on it was really one-way traffic as Cyprus regained their two-goal cushion and never looked back. Another defensive error from the visitors allowed the hosts to nick a third goal against the run of play, Ivanov making a hash of Makrides's clearance and Constantinou on hand to smash home a powerful volley.
Constantinou was put clean through by Marinos Satsias midway through the second period, but had his shot blocked by Ivankov. The goalkeeper was injured in the collision and carried off on a stretcher to be replaced by Nikolay Mihaylov.
Constantinou was again guilty of wasting a good opportunity 15 minutes from time, shooting straight at the Bulgaria goalkeeper from Charalambides' cross. But the fourth goal did arrive three minutes later, Charalambides releasing Aloneftis who beat Mihaylov from close range.
Aloneftis could have made it five in the closing stages, but fired only into the side-netting, while Berbatov had the chance of a late consolation, but failed to beat Avgoustis from close range.