Ian Poulter (Getty Images)
Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter was today facing an uphill struggle to avoid an early exit from the Volvo World Match Play Championship in Bulgaria.
The 2011 champion, who inspired Europe's remarkable fightback at Medinah last year, lost his opening match at Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort yesterday to Thongchai Jaidee and quickly found himself behind to South Africa's Thomas Aiken this afternoon.
Jaidee had beaten Aiken on Friday morning to top the group, leaving Aiken and Poulter to battle for second spot and a place in the last 16 on Saturday.
A birdie on the first gave Aiken the upper hand and he was soon two up when Poulter needed two attempts to get out of a greenside bunker on the second.
Poulter reduced the deficit with a birdie on the sixth only for Aiken to hole from seven feet on the next to restore his two hole lead.
A halved match would see the pair go into a sudden-death play-off and Poulter - who suffered from stomach cramps in his loss to Jaidee - was refusing to throw in the towel, a par on the eighth good enough to win the hole.
A number of play-offs were possible following the morning matches, but Brett Rumford, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño, Francesco Molinari and Richard Sterne had already booked their places in the knockout stages.
Rumford's bid to join Sir Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros in the record books remained firmly on course as Nicolas Colsaerts also kept alive his hopes of defending his title.
After back-to-back wins at the Ballantine's Championship and Volvo China Open two weeks ago, Rumford is looking to become only the third man in European Tour history to win three consecutive events.
Only Faldo in 1983 and the late Ballesteros three years later have achieved the remarkable feat, but Rumford was eight under par in the 15 holes it took to beat Jamie Donaldson 5 and 3 to reach the last 16 with a game to spare.
A second defeat for Donaldson meant Rumford and Fernandez-Castaño were assured of going through before their meeting this afternoon, with the Spaniard four up with five to play.
Colsaerts lost to Branden Grace yesterday but beat Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat 3 and 2 this morning to at least guarantee himself a play-off, something he needed last year as well after a draw and a defeat in his two group matches.
A win for Grace would see him top the group and also seal Colsaerts' place in the last 16, while a win for Aphibarnrat would mean a three-way play-off and the Thai was one up after 11.
Top seed Graeme McDowell was well on the way to advancing with a second win as he went four up on Stephen Gallacher after eight holes.
Poulter got back to level by the turn, but lost the tenth and then the 12th after a wild drive.
The 13th was halved in bogey fives, leaving the Englishman two down with five to play.
Meanwhile, Scott Jamieson's 5 and 3 win over Thorbjørn Olesen secured places in the last 16 for himself and Carl Pettersson from their group, while Felipe Aguilar also advanced after a 3 and 1 win over Henrik Stenson which eliminated the Swede.
The first play-off was set to take place in the Arnold Palmer group, with Shane Lowry's win over Peter Hanson ensuring they joined George Coetzee on two points.
Lowry secured his place in the last 16 with a birdie two on the second play-off hole, while Hanson also went through with a par thanks to a bogey from Coetzee.
Another play-off now looked a distinct possibility between Poulter and Aiken after the former got back to all square with birdies on the 15th and 16th.