Defoe's dazzling hat-trick heralds a fresh start for England

England 4 Bulgaria

Fabio Capello would like to consign the World Cup finals to history but not even he can quite convince himself to start believing in this England team again.

Only when his side's third goal went in did Capello permit himself a smile and a brief round of applause before that stony old face set implacably against the world once more.

Here we go again. The first step to Euro 2012 qualification ended in a Wembley drubbing and a home crowd who celebrated as if nothing of any note had happened during June at the southern end of the African continent. But the World Cup finals will not be expunged that easily even when, in an edgy post-match press conference, Capello declared that "the past is the past".

Not quite yet, Fabio. It is a fair request that eventually not every question will lead back to the debacle of England's performance at the World Cup finals in South Africa but for now the memory is still raw. A hat-trick for Jermain Defoe, a sparkling performance from Wayne Rooney – this was a welcome first Friday night qualifier at Wembley. But no sensible person thinks this team are anywhere near turning the corner yet.

These games are not simple, especially not against a neat Bulgaria team ranked 43rd in the world who were unafraid to kick and trip when they judged it appropriate. Defoe will be the man for whom this game is remembered but Joe Hart was not too far behind. With England just one goal up he made one stupendous save on the hour that arguably changed the game. Within a minute England counter-attacked and scored their second.

Equally important was when, in the first half, Hart saved Glen Johnson's miscued clearance that was on target and going in. When he picked himself off the turf, the Manchester City goalkeeper did not turn to his right-back and admonish him. Neither did he posture for the camera. Instead he turned to Johnson and laughed, a reaction which suggests, if nothing else, a sense of perspective.

This was England's 11th consecutive victory at Wembley, a record that would be a lot more impressive were it not for the episode in South Africa. There was a debut goal for Adam Johnson which gave the evening a beginning-of-a-new-era feel although really – Hart aside – this was about the old guard again. Steven Gerrard was another outstanding performer.

That is not to say that Capello is without concerns for the trip to Basle to face Switzerland on Tuesday. Michael Dawson will almost certainly miss that game having suffered a bad twist to his right knee that means, along with Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Ledley King, Capello is now without his four first choice centre-backs. Matthew Upson was not even on the substitutes' bench last night. Capello says that he is fit.

The England manager was in a confrontational mood afterwards. He knows that on the "God or monster" scale, the needle is still wavering dangerously close to "monster". That makes him defensive in a way that many of his predecessors became. "The most important thing is to win because when you lose, you know what happens," he said. "You [the press] write enough when I lose." If he keeps this up for the next two years we could be in for a taxing qualification campaign.

Defoe scored his first goal three minutes into the Euro 2012 campaign. Rooney, who played a major role in all four goals, picked out Ashley Cole's run down the left wing. Having had his shot blocked the first time, Cole squared to Defoe who reacted first and scored from close range.

Rooney, Capello would later disclose, had been told to position himself in front of the central two midfielders –Gareth Barry and Gerrard on this occasion – in order to get on the ball as much as possible. "We want him to touch the ball a lot," Capello said. "The quality of Rooney is very high." The deeper position accounted for Rooney's influence on the game and also perhaps why he did not score himself.

When Rooney dropped deep, England's 4-4-2 system became more like 4-4-1-1. It benefited from one of Gerrard's best performances in the first half. Fouled early on by the Bulgarian centre-back Stanislav Angelov, the England captain took control. He dropped in front of his own back four to pick the ball up and dictate much of the first half.

Even so, Bulgaria were hard to break down and Capello's team looked very static on occasions. They lost their way in the middle of the first half and allowed Bulgaria back into the game. There is always a tipping point against international teams of their stature when, especially away from home, they just give up the ghost. It was not until England's third goal with six minutes left that they reached that moment. When Hart saved from Angelov on the hour, the game was still in the balance.

Hart attributed his save to a technique learned from his former Manchester City team-mate Kasper Schmeichel – and by extension surely Kasper's famous father Peter – in which the goalkeeper makes himself as big as possible. From that save, Barry picked up the loose ball and from Gerrard to Rooney the ball found its way to Defoe who put his shot through the legs of the goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov.

Before then Capello had lost Dawson to what looked like a bad fall and twist that put unnatural pressure on his right knee. In his place came Gary Cahill from Bolton Wanderers for his senior England debut. On for Walcott, Adam Johnson struck his first England goal inside Mihaylov's near post after Defoe and then Rooney had worked the ball out to the right.

It was Rooney again, surging forward who played in Defoe for his third goal. Had this gone badly Capello would have been going to Switzerland tomorrow with potentially one game to save his job. There is more breathing space now although, Capello will surely know, not that much more.

England 4-4-2: Hart (Manchester City); G Johnson (Liverpool), Jagielka (Everton), Dawson (Tottenham), A Cole (Chelsea); Walcott (Arsenal), Gerrard (Liverpool), Barry (Manchester City), Milner (Manchester City); Rooney (Manchester United), Defoe Tottenham). Substitutes used: Cahill (Bolton) for Dawson, 56; A Johnson (Manchester City) for Walcott, 74, Young (Aston Villa) for Defoe, 87.

Bulgaria 4-4-2: Mihaylov (Twente); Manolev (PSV Eindhoven), Stoyanov (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Ivanov (Alania), Milanov (Vaslui); Yankov (Rostov), S Petrov (Aston Villa), Angelov (Steaua Bucharest), M Petrov (Bolton); Bojinov (Parma), Popov (Litex). Substitutes used: Rangelov (Borussia Dortmund) for Bojinov 63; Minev (Levski Sofia) for Manolev 65, Peev (Amkar) for Popov 79

Referee V Kassai (Hungary).

Man of the match Hart.

Attendance 73,246.

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