There is something about the hostility of playing away from Wembley that brings out the very best in Fabio Capello's team and at times last night it got very hostile indeed here.
The worst of it was the racial abuse directed at Ashley Young and Theo Walcott for which the Bulgaria coach, Lothar Matthäus, was moved to apologise at the end of the game. Then there was the flare thrown close to Joe Hart's goal in the second half. But, as they have done in their other two away games in qualification for Euro 2012, and all but one game on the road in the previous World Cup qualifying campaign, England cruised to victory again.
It was a step closer to qualification for Poland and Ukraine which would be in the bag by now if Capello's team's form at their £757m home in north-west London was as good as it has been on the road over the last 12 months. Next month they will have to go to Podgorica to face Montenegro, beaten by Wales last night, and get a point, providing they defeat Gary Speed's team at Wembley on Tuesday. On last night's performance, that should not be a problem.
As Capello ranted and raged on the touchline in the first half there was a confidence about his team that contrasted with the histrionics of their manager. Were Bulgaria a poor side? You bet they were, but they had also got a point against Montenegro, England's closest rivals, in their previous game. Last night they were not given a sniff of goal by England until the game was already out of sight.
Wayne Rooney's two goals propelled him to joint seventh in the all-time England goalscorers' list alongside those 19th-century greats Steve Bloomer and Vivian Woodward who probably played on better pitches than the one in Sofia last night. Naturally it will be Rooney who takes the plaudits, he is making it look so easy at the moment, but this was a solid performance from Capello's side just when the boat had started to rock.
The draw with Switzerland in June, England's second draw in qualifying, had introduced a modicum of uncertainty to the team's progress which was brushed away last night. Gary Cahill scored on his first start for England, playing in a defence that was solid throughout. Although deployed out of position, Young made Rooney's second goal. Scott Parker and Gareth Barry provided a very sound base for Capello's 4-2-3-1 formation.
It was not a good night for Bulgarian football and Matthäus, at least, recognised that. He got a hard time from his own country's press in the aftermath of what was undoubtedly an insipid performance but he had the good sense to recognise that the abuse of Young and Walcott was totally unacceptable – and that someone on the Bulgarian side had to say so. That said, some of the England fans' chants about their Bulgarian counterparts did them little credit either.
Cahill's goal on 13 minutes, taken on his chest from Barry's cross and poked past the goalkeeper Nikolai Mihaylov, was the first England goal from a Bolton Wanderers player since the late Nat Lofthouse scored against the USSR in 1959. Cahill had been preferred to Phil Jagielka, Joleon Lescott and Phil Jones to start alongside John Terry in defence and he certainly looked the part last night.
Not so sure about the dark blue away shirts that England showcased last night, which made them look more like participants in a corporate golf day than the proud inheritors of the 139-year-old traditions of the national team. The formation did not feel quite right either early on with Young pushed into a central position, arguably the traditional No 10's role, behind Rooney rather than being allowed to maraud in from the wing as he has done to such effect with Manchester United this season.
But it is hard to argue with a three-goal lead at half-time. Bulgaria were at their worst at the back, no more so than when they allowed Rooney to get in at the back post eight minutes after Cahill's goal to head in Downing's cross. His only challenger for the ball was Terry.
Capello also signalled a major shift in his selection policy when he left Frank Lampard on the bench in a competitive England game for the first time since September 2007. That was a Euro 2008 qualifier against Russia – and proved a one-off. In reality Lampard has been a mainstay of the team since Euro 2004. Lampard's time as an automatic first-choice pick for England is clearly at an end although his replacements, Barry and Parker, were not exactly the vanguard of the new generation.
Afterwards Capello was at pains to play down the significance of Lampard being dropped, claiming that it was simply a case of picking players on form. But this has been coming for a while and with Jack Wilshere and Steven Gerrard also out of the side it will have been a chastening moment for Lampard when the team was announced by Capello yesterday.
As an England international, Lampard has made a very valuable contribution over 87 caps and 22 goals. Whether he will get a fair hearing as one of the most harshly-judged members of the "golden generation" is another matter. Last night he came on for Barry in the latter stages but he looks a natural candidate to retire from the England scene after Euro 2012.
England's third goal was their best. It began with a good run from Walcott who drew defenders towards him, before laying the ball off to Young who picked out Rooney nicely at the back post for simple finish. In the stand, Dimitar Berbatov chatted to his former team-mate Gary Neville who was on Sky Sports duty. If he has time to show up to watch games then Berbatov should be playing for Bulgaria. He would be certain of getting a game.
After half-time, Capello switched his formation to 4-5-1 with Young restored to his more natural position on the left wing before later substituting him. Stewart Downing grazed the far post with a header from a Walcott cross. With two games left and only four points required, qualification for Euro 2012 is within England's grasp.
Bulgaria: Sarmov for Bandalovski, h-t; Bozhilov for Genkov, 61; Marquinhos for Popov, 81.
England: Milner for A Young, 62; Lampard for Barry, 80; A Johnson for Walcott, 83.
Booked: Bulgaria Sarmov, Milanov; England Parker.
Man of the match:
Match rating: 6/10.
Attempts on target: Bulgaria 2 England 5.
Referee: F de Bleeckere (Belgium).
England man-for-man marking
Put under pressure by Bulgaria, and his distribution did suffer at times. Made one good save in the second half. 6/10
A few nervous moments of indecision but he should have got more help from Theo Walcott in dealing with Martin Petrov. Grew in confidence as the game went on. Occasional useful forays. 6
A simple evening for the captain. He had to make some tackles but was always in total, serene control of the situation. 7
Bundled in his first international goal, and England's first. That aside, he was assured, making important interceptions and rarely over-committing himself. 7
Typically excellent. Cole dominated the entire left flank, whether stifling the runs of Bandalovski, or surging forward beyond Downing into the final third. Nearly scored his first England goal. 8
Busy with crucial interceptions and blocks, including one that led to the third goal. His robust tackling earned him a booking, but his discipline was good. 7
Calm and comfortable in midfield, both with and without the ball. Set up Gary Cahill's goal with a clever chipped pass from the edge of the penalty area. 7
A quiet evening until his surging run through the middle led to England's third goal. Occasional bright moments, but missed a good second-half chance. 6
Clever movement throughout, linking well with United team-mate Wayne Rooney. His low cross to the far post set up Rooney's second goal. 7
Switched positions across the front-line, confusing the defence with his running and touches. Hit the post with a header after drifting away from his man. His corner set up Rooney's first goal. 7
All of England's best moments came when Rooney dropped back into space, from where he could showcase his vision. Took both of his goals well, one leaping header and one tap-in. 9
Best off the bench
James Milner (for Young, 62)
Lively running up and down the right flank for the final 30 minutes, with good delivery from wide positions. 7
Frank Lampard (for Barry, 80)
Solid midfield ball retention. 6
Adam Johnson (for Walcott, 83)
One jinking run past two defenders. 6
Bulgaria Star Man
Caused Chris Smalling some problems, which is more than can be said for most of his team-mates. The only Bulgarian player who ran or shot at goal. 6/10
Group G Details
*Results so far
England 4-0 Bulgaria, Montenegro 1-0 Wales; Bulgaria 0-1 Montenegro, Switzerland 1-3 England; Montenegro 1-0 Switzerland, Wales 0-1 Bulgaria; England 0-0 Montenegro, Switzerland 4-1 Wales; Bulgaria 0-0 Switzerland, Wales 0-2 England; England 2-2 Switzerland, Montenegro 1-1 Bulgaria; Bulgaria 0-3 England, Wales 2-1 Montenegro.
Tuesday: England v Wales, Switzerland v Bulgaria.
7 October: Montenegro v England, Wales v Switzerland.
11 October: Bulgaria v Wales, Switzerland v Montenegro.
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