With ‘new England’ launching their qualifying campaign at home, there was precious little new. Fabio Capello cited evolution as opposed to revolution as he aims to England forward and he remained undeterred by opting with the 4-4-2 formation that proved successful prior to the World Cup. James Milner was this time the left-sided tenant in midfield whilst Jermain Defoe rewarded the coach’s faith in him with a hat trick that portrayed his predatory nature. A new-look central defensive pairing in Michael Dawson and Phil Jagielka were steady, and distributed efficiently to a midfield that were constantly mobile, offering the man in possession an option to pass.
That attacking fluency lead to England’s opening goal after just three minutes. Rooney lifted the ball over the Bulgarian back line into the path of a charging Ashley Cole, who was tireless in both defence and attack. Having latched onto the pass, Cole turned the back across goal for Defoe to prod home into an empty net. Cue thigh slaps for all the England backroom staff as Capello celebrated the breakthrough.
Joe Hart’s first competitive game for his country only amplified those signing his praises after he replicated his club form to produce a string of impressive saves. With all of which coming after the interval, the Manchester City custodian needed to be aware as Glen Johnson was close to unintentionally turning a tame cross into his own net in the first-half. As Hart’s involvement increased, Defoe’s second came as a timely counterpunch. Hart’s first of a number of excellent second-half stops fell to Steven Gerrard, who in turn, fed Wayne Rooney and as he approached the opposition penalty area England’s no.9 defied those who had been in this situation previous and picked the right option. Dissecting two Bulgarian defenders with the pass to Defoe, the lively striker coolly beat Nikolay Mihaylov to grant England breathing space. From there, the tension was lifted and the Three Lions roared into life. The confirmation of Defoe’s treble came via a powerful strike and sub Adam Johnson celebrated his first England goal, using the overlapping run of Gerrard to buy time and space from his marker to cut inside and fire home.
Dawson’s one error- a missed header- provided Ivelin Popov with a sight a goal. It was a second defensive lapse in as many internationals for Dawson yet this went unpunished as the frontman fired wide. Moments later Dawson’s evening was cruelly cut short as a knee injury ensured the Tottenham defender needed the aid of a stretcher to depart. In Dawson’s absence, Gary Cahill won his first England cap and in doing so, extended the pool of centre halves at Capello’s disposal as the Bolton man was chosen on the bench ahead of the more established Joleon Lescott and Matthew Upson.
Such a convincing win is precisely what Capello and his charges will have planned for and the performances will reassure the Italian on both formation and the resources within his squad. Theo Walcott’s startling club form was unable to be converted to the international stage, yet he out-pointed his full-back, willing to provide width when necessary and surge infield to support Defoe and Rooney. Adam Johnson, his replacement, further enhanced his international reputation with and his comfort with the ball at either foot proved essential in his goal.
In a first half where England had occasions to put the result beyond doubt, chances were wasted. Misplaced passes, poor crossing, even choosing the wrong option prevented a more comfortable first-half. Rooney’s deft clip into the path of Defoe, followed by his second-half performance strikes of a man returning to form at just the right time. He was close to scoring himself- nearly ending his England goal drought that stands at a week short of a year- with an instinctive chip. Yet the potency that England displayed in the closing stages was precisely the warning that their Group G counterparts feared. A four-goal haul reflected England dominance; especially the early hunger for possession, yet the Three Lions were patient enough to kill off a Bulgarian outfit that only troubled Hart briefly before and after the crucial second goal.